The road to Mesa: a buddy pic with a difference. A review.

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

By Liz Nicholls,

Funny how the concept “road trip” conjures two sets of images, almost entirely contradictory.

One is fuelled by sheer romance, the cinematic sweep of conquering vastness in a first-hand way: the questing spirit with car keys, so to speak. The other is fuelled by the reality of being locked into a relatively teeny space with someone who, you’ll soon discover, doesn’t share your world view, or your taste in music or your pace in roadside pit stops. Sometimes they’re related to you. Often they snore.

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This is the situation in Mesa, an odd and surprisingly surprising buddy-pic comedy by Calgary’s Doug Fisher, a founder of Ghost River Theatre. It’s the choice of the Atlas Theatre Collective, whose artistic director Julien Arnold is in the show, alongside Richard Lee Hsi. 

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

The opening image of Patricia Darbasie’s production is one to cherish: an old guy (Arnold) in one of those hats with major fur earflaps and a young guy (Lee Hsi) in a toque are sitting in the front seat of a car. OK, you have to imagine the front seat and the car, which is fine (the production is staged with astute simplicity). Yes, they are Canadians. And yes, they are driving south. They have 1500 miles (that’s an infinite number of kilometres) ahead of them, so “are we there yet?” has a particular edge.

Paul (Lee Hsi), a 35-year-old writer, struggling with both his career “as an artist” and, it turns out, his marriage, has agreed to drive 93-year-old snowbird Bud, his wife’s grandfather, to his retirement trailer in Mesa, Arizona.

The destination is a time-honoured punchline. But there’s the getting there. In this, the younger man has been moved by a desire for re-invention of self, for rebirth in a journey of discovery. What he’s anticipating, as he says, is the America of Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, The Battle of Little Big Horn, the OK Corral, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon.

Grandpa Bud, on the other hand, is all about getting to his trailer in Mesa. As soon as possible.

It’s not starting well. Paul is dreaming of “the backroads of America”; Grandpa Bud says “we’ll stick to the Interstate.” What they will see, to Paul’s mounting irritation, is the America of Motel 6s and Denny’s. Grandpa Bud is adamantine on the subject of schedule, and diet.

No, he won’t eat at Wendy’s. No, he absolutely refuses to stop in Ketchum, Idaho and see Ernest Hemingway’s house. “He won’t be there. He’s dead.” He insists on Idaho Falls. Why? The Denny’s is right next to the Motel 6. You can sense Paul grinding his molars even if you can’t hear it. 

The play, produced here by Workshop West in 2001 (in a production starring Ashley Wright and Teatro La Quindicina artistic director Jeff Haslam), hasn’t been updated. Times being what they are, you’re bound to notice that a Trump-ian America would have darkened (or politicized) Paul’s dreams. He might never have signed on to go anywhere near Arizona, for one thing. But Paul’s rhetorical awe, “how did we get from Sitting Bull to Denny’s in 100 years?” — Grandpa Bud’s lifetime — does still stick, even if the concept Trump infiltrates the mind’s eye.

The chemistry of these two excellent actors is what makes the play, and the production, tick. Arnold turns in an amazingly convincing performance as Grandpa Bud. And he does it largely through breathing (a lot of it) and fragmented rhythm, and a kind of stiff-legged gait — not a scratchy cliché old-guy voice. He barely moves his mouth when he talks, as if he’s making sure his teeth are in place.

It’s a strikingly unsentimental portrait of old age, in all its harsh cut-to-the-chase lack of interest in the new, and resistance to change of any kind. He’s pragmatic, petulant, opinionated, and given to tantrums when crossed. In Arnold’s performance, the contours are softened only in flashbacks, when Grandpa Bud steps out of the car and the ongoing journey, and remembers selected aspects of his life, mostly to do with his late wife and his music hobby.

Lee Hsi, who’s a subtle and appealing actor, conveys the sense of good intentions undermined by exasperation. And it’s infiltrated by a sense of the character’s dissatisfaction, his self-doubt, his need to fix his life.

When that change comes, or at least begins, it’s in an unexpected way. The play doesn’t explain it, just floats it, and let’s us be as surprised as Paul is. Proximity to old age, however irascible, and to death, has something to do with it. Paul has to reassess his reactions to the seniors of the Citrus Gardens trailer park, with their garden gnomes and their rituals, their Saturday night dances and bad jokes, their matter-of-fact view of mortality, their reviews of the dearly departeds.

Amusingly, the pre-show music is Sentimental Journey. And what’s puckish and wry at the beginning has a different feel at the end. It’s for Cathy Derkach to step away from the keyboard, where she weaves wispy fragments of golden oldies, to become Americans that Paul and Grandpa Bud meet. The sequences in a casino, for example, or in Tombstone, a detour where the famous OK Corral battle has devolved into a feud between two opposing gunfight “attractions,” seem a little over-extended on this viewing (I was kindly permitted to see a preview). But the combination of confrontational and cordial, with a little good ol’ American hustle, hits the mark.

Chantel Fortin’s design, with its cut-out Shangri-la mesas and cactus, seems just the right weight for the piece. The sunsets are by lighting designer Jeff Osterlin.



Varscona Theatre Ensemble

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



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