Fringe review: Picnics at the Asylum

By Liz Nicholls,

Picnics at the Asylum (Stage 9, Telus Phone Museum)

Angela Neff, Picnics at the Asylum. Photo supplied.

The eccentric character who gets conjured in this personal memoir is loud, colourful, fun-loving, generous with his affections. He loves his kids; they adore him. He sings too loud; he drives too fast; he drinks too much; he has too many kids. He’s a no-small-measures no-rules guy, larger than life in a life-sized world. And there’s big charisma in that.

As we learn in this amusing and scary solo memoir from San Francisco’s Angela L. Neff, the man is her dad. And even his downside is big: he’s completely unpredictable. He veers wildly from manic exuberance to destructiveness and catatonic melt-down. His life is a declension into chaos and he spreads chaos around him.

And in the end, madness will unravel everything, even love.

It’s an arresting novel-sized story. And in theatre that’s a tough assignment, setting up a world of adult impulse and largesse, as seen through the eyes of a little kid. The vision belongs to young Angela, an observer in a gaggle of seven siblings jockeying for their dad’s favours in a dad-centric family.

Neff charts a gradual evolution of the watchful into the wary. The starting point is her small, quiet, unhistrionic voice; she doesn’t try too hard. So departures into her dad’s loud Johnny Cash imitations, or the funny but horrifying times he takes his kids along to his AA meetings, have an extra dimension: what was appealing becomes ever more embarrassing.

What I like about the show is, in a way, what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t presume to explain the dad’s mental illness, or his strange attraction to Catholicism; it would have to violate the kid perspective to do that. But the arc whereby he ends up a ragged, raging street preacher isn’t outlandish; there’s a love of performing that seems to turn viral, or rancid, in him.

Picnics at the Asylum doesn’t explain itself. In a Fringe world loaded with confessionals that are insistent about what conclusions we should draw, this is a show that, impressively, trusts us with a coming-of-age story from a fellow observer. And lets us think what we will about loss. 

As seen at the Winnipeg Fringe.

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