By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There was a moment last fall when Stewart Lemoine found himself standing on a Winnipeg street, peering through the front window of a house he once knew, rooted to the spot.
“I knew I shouldn’t be doing this,” he remembers thinking. “What does it look like? I can’t go in. I should knock on the door, or leave….”
It’s an experience, tiny and memorable, that has found it way into the new Lemoine, premiering Thursday at the Varscona to launch the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season. In The Finest of Strangers a well-known Canadian TV personality (Jeff Haslam), an investigative reporter on the national news, visits his childhood home in High River, Alberta. And he finds he just can’t leave.
This unusual situation naturally creates a certain mystification factor for the current occupant of the house (Patricia Darbasie) — “a high school English teacher with a wry outlook” as the playwright describes her — and the next-door neighbour (Davina Stewart). “It’s a hard thing to explain,” says Lemoine, with a mysterious smile of his own. “Something wants him there. They explore together what it might be.” Discoveries all round ensue.
Which brings us back to that night in Winnipeg. Lemoine had been having dinner with Teatro actor friends across the alley, a perfectly preserved-in-amber ‘50s steakhouse. He and Andrew MacDonald-Smith stepped across to the house where the young Lemoine had spent two years, ages six and seven, in a childhood of constant motion, place to place in northern Manitoba. His dad was a Hudson’s Bay store manager in places like Cross Lake and Nelson House, “places you had to fly to…. That’s why I learned to read when I was four,” he laughs. “Nothing to do.”
When Lemoine’s dad got promoted to regional manager, “we lived in Winnipeg during his training, in a duplex owned by the Bay. My first real city house, 20s or 30s, hardwood floor.”
“This play,” he says of The Finest of Strangers, “is something of that feeling, something that seems important and lingers with you….”
Other places lived in and not forgotten wafted into the new play too, Lemoine thinks. “In the spring of 2015 we closed the Varscona (for extensive renos), and within two weeks it was knocked down.” The feeling was by no means regret (in fact, more like celebration, given the decrepitude of the building). Says Lemoine, “it was just one of the places I had been the most in the last 20 years. I think about the lobby sometimes, and the times I’ve had there….”
Six weeks after that, he and his siblings sold their parents’ house where they’d lived for 47 years. “It was easy, not emotional. We just went in and got rid of everything. But suddenly, there was another place I’d never return…. I haven’t been back in three years, but one day I’ll walk by.”
The Finest of Strangers, says its creator, “is about a guy who goes back to a house where he once lived 45 years ago, and finds out some things in the process…. Initially he and the current occupant seem unconnected, strangers. His being there unleashes some past events.”
“I think there are things that happen when people live in a house. And there’s a possibility that somebody’s story might be connected to the story of somebody else who lived in that house, even though they didn’t know each other,” Lemoine muses. “There are ghostly presences connected to the house, that connect them to each other…. Think of history as fluid.That we remember things that happened in the past means that they’re still ‘alive’…. We live with them; they exist in the present.”
And speaking as we are of the co-existence of past and present, the eight actors in the full-bodied premiere production of The Finest of Strangers include five veteran Teatro stars, old friends whose history with the company goes back 25 years or more. Leona Brausen was there at the very start, the birth of Teatro at the first Fringe in 1982, and even before that when Lemoine was making little movies in which his friends appeared.
The play is a reunion of sorts for Teatro cohorts Haslam and Stewart with Darbasie, who’s making her Teatro debut in The Finest of Strangers. The three were U of A theatre school classmates and graduated together in 1986. And the characters they play — the TV news star, the house occupant and the lady next door — “spend a lot of time discovering things together, as strange things happen and unexpected characters begin to arrive.”
Stewart and Teatro have a long and distinguished history together, back to title roles, specially written for her, in The Vile Governess in 1985 and Cocktails at Pam’s the following year. Cathy Derkach made her Teatro debut in 1988, with Haslam, in Lemoine’s Neck-Breaking Car Hop. Julien Arnold’s debut came two years later with The Glittering Heart. And Teatro’s association with Calgary actor/director Mark Bellamy (last seen in Teatro’s most recent revival of Cocktails at Pam’s) goes back 30 years to Lemoine productions at Alberta Theatre Projects and Vertigo Theatre.
As usual with Teatro, the company embraces newcomers: Michelle Diaz, who arrived on the scene in Teatro’s For The Love of Cynthia and had a sensational presence in The Plain Janes’ Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown earlier this season. Never one to let great pipes go to waste, Lemoine, who calls Diaz “high-impact,” says she’ll be singing in the course of the show.
Eight actors is a lot of stage traffic for a small company. “Big casts tend to bring big audiences,” that’s Teatro logic as set forth by Lemoine. “People figure things are going to happen!”
Like the characters themselves, who gradually discover connections in the course of the play, The Finest of Strangers didn’t come as a fully formed plot in advance. With its elements of mystery and comedy and romance, it would seem to elude any known category or genre, Lemoine agrees.
“I had to find my way into something that didn’t make sense. Until it did,” Lemoine laughs. “Some of my favourite plays are like that, Eros And The Itchy Ant or The Margin of the Sky, that I could never have pitched to a granting agency…. The only way to know what this play was was to write it!”
The Finest of Strangers
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Jeff Haslam, Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Julien Arnold, Leona Brausen, Cathy Derkach, Mark Bellamy, Michelle Diaz
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through June 16