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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Review: Hometown worth a visit

Directed by Peter Smith

A string of projections and voiceovers reminiscing about growing up in or around Blyth, Ontario, sets the stage for the series of plays known collectively as Hometown. “Fond nostalgia” would be the order of the day, it would seem, and so a heavy dose of sentiment is subsequently delivered, with varying degrees of success.

The least successful is Des Walsh’s “New Bonaventure, Newfoundland”, a look-back at Newfoundland pre and post the colony’s joining Canadian confederation. A trio of actors take the stage but are given nothing to do, and what little there is to say is delivered statically and without a decent Newfoundland accent among them (I know it's a hard one to mimic, but I can say this with conviction, being from the Rock myself.)   The “poor us” attitude of Confederation lamenting has been done to death, and the fierce pride of so many Newfoundlanders is missing. Finally, there is any number of Newfoundland anthems  worthier to end the piece than the melancholy dirge Walsh provides.

Moving on to Quebec, is Jean Marc Dalpe’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. Told in two time periods, we meet Louis, who, having grown up in Alberta, Louis resents his mother’s  over-the-top Christmases that are rife with old Quebec traditions, and does not understand her perseverance in the very thing that made him stand out in Alberta. On the other side, we learn that his mom never really wanted to leave her rural Quebec village – she only did so that Louis would have the better life that he did indeed grow up to have. The dual identity that Louis feels and the deep connection of his mother to her Quebec roots show how complex “home” can become to those who leave roots elsewhere. Marion Day as the mother and Ryan Bondy as Louis both turn in excellently torn performances.

Next is Peter Smith’s “A Way to the Stars”, set in 1969 Barrie, Ontario. Two boys growing up, doing boy things – experiencing the euphoric wonder of the moon landing, illegally buying smokes from the scary shop-keeper, and looking back at their town from the unique perspective of the middle of Lake Simcoe, having skated out to the middle during the winter (kudos to Pat Flood for the simple and clever rendering of hockey skates). Such happy memories are tinged with tragedy, but Smith’s assertion - that you take home with you, in the memories of those you loved most – is no less potent for its predictable sentimentality.

“Things to Remember” by Meiko Ouchi has a different slant on ‘home’ that it is the lessons taught by those who love us well is what creates the feeling family. The patriarch of a prairie homestead in the early 1900’s is an affectionate father but somewhat of a mystery to his two sons.  He has ten lessons that he lives by, and he not only teaches the boys to memorize them by heart, he shows how to apply them in real life. “The pleasure of working.” “The influence of example.” “The dignity of simplicity.” The boys learn about their father, their own history, and take these lessons into the future.

“The Bog”, by Martha Ross, is perhaps the most interesting play and the best performed. Less about ‘home’ than the nature of memory, we meet a writer named Tracey who is preparing a lecture about the town where she grew up, on the outskirts of Vancouver. It seems there was a bog on the edge of this town, where fantastic people lived and mysterious events took place. But did they happen exactly as Tracey remembers? As Tracey types, a sinister fellow – perhaps her conscience – keeps haranguing her to remember things truthfully. With lightening speed and dialogue to match, people from her memory enter and exit and change on stage, reenacting events of her childhood, until Tracey is forced to admit that truth is a ‘whole lot different from reality’ – and the truth of memory is different still. Marion Day plays Tracey, and although she has been long known as a fine actor, I had no idea she had the great comic chops she displays in this piece. She’ll have you in stitches.

Tying all the plays together is “Thea” by Mansel Robinson. Thea (performed wonderfully by Kira Guloien) is a teenage, techno-babbling girl who is pissed that her mom is dragging her – by train – across the country to go back to her hometown after splitting with her dad. She comes and goes between the other plays, giving the audience monologue updates on her cell-phone and blog status, her attempts to get into the bar-car, and the people she’s met (even “really old” people - in their 30’s). The journey across Canada is a metaphor for Thea’s coming-of-age, and she comes to understand her mother a little more, admits nervousness about fitting into a new town, and is unabashedly, humbly surprised when she sees her cousins at the station waiting to greet her. Having found ‘home’, she thanks the audience for listening, and tells us to stop by anytime.

Do stop by the Blyth Festival to catch Hometown. It plays in repertory until August 7, 2011.

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