By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A man, a well-known TV investigative reporter, returns to the small-town house where he spent a year as a six-year-old boy. He’s having coffee with the affable current owner, a stranger to him, when he discovers that he’s rooted to the spot, entirely unable to move.
Why? How? What kind of ghostly gravitational pull is this? It’s the first mystery of the many that will unfold, to reveal others, that reveal others, in The Finest of Strangers.
The compellingly strange, moving, and ever-darkening new play by Stewart Lemoine that launches the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season (with an all-star cast of Teatro veterans) is a veritable architecture of mystification and secrets. And it opens layer by layer, like applications of wallpaper peeled from an old house.
Naturally, Mavis Craig (Patricia Darbasie), a high school English teacher of equable temperament, is jolted into perplexity by the bizarre emergency her drop-in visitor Bruce Faraday (Jeff Haslam) is having at the outset. So is he. So is the chatty, star-struck neighbour Allison (Davina Stewart), who has followed the scent of celebrity to Mavis’s place.
The house in High Level, AB. where little boy Bruce and his mother moved after his father died is the built environment of memory (an ingenious Chantel Fortin design). Middle-aged Bruce is working on a story about houses people once lived in, and he’s starting with his own.
There are many arrivals in The Finest of Strangers (it’s a large-cast production, at eight actors). Among them, intriguingly, is one person Bruce knows from his past, and one person Mavis knows from hers (who shows up with flowers). And these two parties, strangers to each other, are the biggest mysteries of all to the house-owner and her accidental guest.
Unwrapping secrets is discovering connections to the past. And in one of the moving insights in a play with many, one character will acknowledge our dual hunger to know more, and also to know less, about the past, lost loves, people who are important to us.
There is a un-hinged free-floating dream-like quality to this gathering of strangers who say “have we met before?” pleasantly to each other just as if they weren’t apparitions. As the practical Mavis says, “I’m this close to believing that this is all really happening.”
The Lemoine canon is dotted with disconcerting interventions from other worlds: the Erl King in Fever-Land and the god of love in Eros and the Itchy Ant spring to mind. The Finest of Strangers is very different in tone from any of them. But as in so many of Lemoine’s plays, music is transporting, a life-changer: the secret lives of ghosts seems to demand it. Music floats along the surfaces of The Finest of Strangers; it seeps like smoke into the crevices of the present from the past.
Music isn’t caused or motivated, in Lemoine. It happens naturally, and it’s meaningful. Mark Bellamy’s character Billy, a soulful Scottish tenor (a quintessentially Lemoine joke), sings a traditional ballad, hands clasped in classic tenor posture. Leland (Julien Arnold) finds a guitar and accompanies Clio (Michelle Diaz, whose hair is as vertiginous as her brio) in a Portuguese art song. Cathy Derkach (Victoria, in an elegant concert gown) is at the piano. The interpretation of an orchestral piece, the questions it raises and the emotional analysis it proposes, is profoundly influential in the story.
There is so little I can fairly tell you about what happens, and even who everyone turns out to be. The Finest of Strangers is, after all, a mystery that’s all about discovery and re-discovery for both the characters and the audience — along a time continuum where the past doesn’t happen chronologically but is a simultaneous sort of mingling.
I can tell you, though, about the performances from an excellent cast in which long-time Teatro stars figure prominently. At the centre is Haslam, in a beautifully understated performance as a man whose professional surface geniality and reserve is increasingly troubled by the unexpected threads he’s following towards the sorrows and painful secrets of his past. Can a man haunt himself? This could be a test case. And Haslam’s incredulity and dawning realization, moment to moment, are charted gracefully, un-histrionically.
As Mavis, who’s playing game host to the most unexpected of house parties, Darbasie in her Teatro debut brings a wry skepticism — the pragmatist disconcerted by the unlikely — to the proceedings. She delivers, in an amusingly unforced way, Lemoinian observations like “the novelty of the day has yet to wear off.” And Stewart as the sharp-tonged energetic neighbour with a streak of malice is a perfect chaser, along with Leona Brausen as a droll every-auntie character.
Derkach has, I think, never been better than she is here, in a performance that will break your heart with its charm, and its deep reservoir of feeling.
The initial set-up does requires duration to be plausible before it unravels; still, the first scenes seem a little long. But after that, the odd and original route a comic premise takes into tragedy and then a kind of peace is compulsive. And the wit of the writing has a dry Lemoine crackle to it. “You’re not my husband,” says one character to another. Response: “Was that meant reproachfully?”
Some mysteries just can’t be unravelled by the mind; they have to be felt, The Finest of Strangers tells us. “We’re unable to find the answer by thinking,” says one character. “Just like everything really,” says another.
So I’ll leave you with this: late in the play a particularly animated character, will offer unsolicited advice to Bruce who turns down a proffered tart. “When offered a snack in what is, for all intents and purposes, an enchanted kingdom,” don’t say no. Words to live by. And The Finest of Strangers is so much more than a snack.
The Finest of Strangers
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Jeff Haslam, Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Cathy Derkach, Leona Brausen, Julien Arnold, Mark Bellamy, Michelle Diaz
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through June 16