On the road again: Mesa is a trip across the border, and the generations

Julien Arnold, Richard Lee Hsi in Mesa, Atlas Theatre Collective. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You know what they say (it’s probably somewhere in the extra-fine print on the AMA website, just kidding): You never really know someone till you travel together.

The buddy pic/ road trip through America that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, in an Atlas Theatre Collective production, is a comic testimonial to that effect — with a heart-tugging kicker.

In Mesa, a bittersweet two-hander comedy by Calgary playwright Doug Curtis (paranormal, The Carrot Warrior, Lester’s Hat), an unemployed, struggling 35-year-old writer (Richard Lee Hsi) has agreed to drive his 93-year-old snowbird grandfather-in-law (Julien Arnold) from Edmonton to his retirement trailer in Mesa, Arizona, a fair patch of real estate away. 

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Julien Arnold, Richard Lee Hsi in Mesa, Atlas Theatre Collective. Photo by Mat Busby.

That’s a lot of Denny’s coffee and gas station bathrooms, a tally that Paul didn’t stop to consider when he agreed, lured by the theoretic romance of discovering America — its history, its scenic showstoppers, its “points of interest.” Grandpa Bud’s mindset isn’t in sync with that notion — at all. He’s 93, it may well be his last trip there, and time’s a wastin’.  Talk about mis-matched roommates (in a very small room, on wheels).  

Director/ actor/ playwright Patricia Darbasie. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Patricia Darbasie, best known to Edmonton audiences as an actor and playwright, is directing the piece. No wonder she’s got vehicles on her mind. “I love directing,” says Darbasie. “Being an actor is like getting to ride in the car, but being a director his like having the keys and driving the car. Getting keys away from someone who owns the car is not easy!”

The play, which premiered at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo in Calgary in 2000 (and later toured the U.K.), got its Edmonton premiere a year later at Workshop West, in a Ron Jenkins production starring Jeff Haslam as Paul and Ashley Wright as Grandpa Bud. Darbasie, who last occupied the Varscona stage as an actor (Going To St. Ives, The Finest of Strangers), says what attracted her to the piece “is how fluid and fast-moving it is. Yes, the relationship between the men (is central), but the challenge for me is to focus a relationship that travels 1500 miles over numerous locations in less than 90 minutes.”

Darbasie arrived in Canada at age seven with her family from Trinidad. And she’s tapped her West Indian roots for several of her plays. West Indian Diary, which premiered in a Ground Zero production, explored the immigrant experience. Before that, Carnival Magic, a kids’ play commissioned by Concrete Theatre for its inaugural Sprouts Festival, combined personal experience and folk tales. Ribbon, the solo play Darbasie wrote for herself that garnered her an directing degree from the U of A, was inspired by our Alberta’s little known black history.

Directing Mesa, “the biggest challenge,” she thinks, “is keeping the action clear…. It’s a simple set, and we move from car to restaurant to hotel to bar all in the space of half a page (of script)…. The easy part is the characters. I think just about everybody who’ll come to see Mesa knows Bud and Paul. They are in your family, or they live next door. You know these two guys!”

Not only are their personalities high-contrast, but there’s a six-decade age gap — more of a chasm, really — between them. Paul is at a crossroads; Grandpa Bud has no time for regret. Is there a bond between youth and age, uncertainty and pragmatism? That’s for the characters to explore in the course of Mesa. None of Grandpa Bud’s reactions are what Paul expects; the younger man is constantly surprised.  

As for Darbasie, she says she went into directing “as a way to better understand the actor’s process… It’s clarified my own process as an actor and given me an opportunity to see how other actors work.” 

Has she found herself wanting to be in the show she’s directing? I really have not,” says Darbasie. “I want the actor who’s been cast to fully realize the part. It’s about how they move and think and what they bring to the role. When I put on my director’s hat … I move into thinking ‘wider picture!’”

And in Mesa, with a couple of Canadians en route to the Citrus Gardens Trailer Park, that wider picture includes a lot of America. 

PREVIEW

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Mesa

Theatre: Atlas Theatre Collective

Written by: Doug Curtis

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Julien Arnold, Richard Lee Hsi, Cathy Derkach

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 2

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com

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