By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The play that opens Wednesday live on the Walterdale stage does something rare in theatre. In a world where aging is a vanishing act for women artists, Brad Fraser’s 5@50 provides a windfall: five big, juicy roles for middle-aged actresses.
The playwright himself has said in interviews that was his original impetus for writing the play that premiered in 2011 at the Royal Exchange in Manchester (and in Vancouver two years later).
With 5@50, Walterdale Theatre returns in its 62nd season to the work of the star Canadian playwright the company stepped up to produce early in his career. One of the oldest community theatres in the country and demonstrably one of its least risk-averse, Walterdale premiered Mutants by the 21-year-old playwright (and director) in 1980, a programming decision that was not without its controversies en route to opening night, and thereafter.
“We have a history of making hard choices,” says 5@50 director Louise Mallory, “of wanting to do challenging stuff, struggling with it, not always getting it right, but trying to do justice to it….”
It’s been seven years or so since Mallory picked up the 5@50 script, newly published at the time, at the annual Fringe sale. Her attraction to the play, in which five old friends have gathered to celebrate the big five-oh of one of the circle, was immediate. “Wow, this is about women my age, an interesting portrayal of women who don’t pull any punches and say what they think…. Wow, I don’t very often see stories about older women in romantic relationships, with ambiguities about their orientation, whether they’re out or not.”
Addictions play a part, too. “Not only how that affects the whole group, but how recovery also affects everybody.”
“I’d read the play before premiere of (Fraser’s) Kill Me Now at Workshop West in 2013. I was bartending on opening night, and I had the script with me thinking I might get him to sign it. But in the end I got too tongue-tied, and just served him a drink,” Mallory laughs.
In 5@50 the five friends go way back, and their lives have diverged dramatically through the years. “It’s sort of like the friendships you might see in a sports team,” she thinks. The members don’t keep up with the daily details of each other’s lives; when they reunite from time to time, there are gaps. It’s a vivid gallery of mouthy, raucous, funny characters. “This is the one who takes care of everybody, and always remembers to bring a card and present for birthdays. This is the blunt one who calls everyone on their crap every time. This is the drunk life of the party…. The people who rub each other the wrong way in scene one are still the people who rub each other the wrong way later on, as things escalate.”
“For me, part of the fun is seeing how different the characters are from each other. You start out thinking it’s a story about one person and how her trouble affects everybody. But over the course of a year, we find out more about what’s going on in everybody else’s lives.”
An engineer by profession, Mallory says “I feel in love with theatre 10 years ago, as an audience member (she’s an inveterate play-goer and sometime Sterling Award juror). And then I tried everything! Even acting classes at the Citadel….The Fringe and Walterdale are great places for people who want to try stuff out, and get their feet wet.”
“But what came naturally to me first was stage management. It’s pretty similar to project engineering,” she says. “Scheduling, organizing, anticipating problems and worst-case scenarios, keeping track of people. I really like that part….”
5@50 isn’t Mallory’s directing debut. For one, she directed a Fringe production, a tribute to The Golden Girls, in 2016. “Very different in tone, but women my age, with agency…. She’d have been happy to work on 5@50 in other capacities, just to see it happen. she says. “Then I got thinking about what I’d bring to a production….”
Ah, the scheduling. Even in the best of times, which no one would argue these are, the rehearsal schedule is always a challenge at an amateur company like Walterdale, where everyone does theatre for love not for money, and arrives at rehearsal having already done a full day’s work.
A long lead time is a given: at Walterdale rehearsals typically happen three times a week for three months. Still, an 18-month pause? 5@50 was nearly ready for production in March 2020 when the pandemic blundered into our lives. “We thought it was a two-week hold, and then … nothing,” sigh Mallory. “I put my script away.”
A certain startling onstage/offstage synchronicity revealed itself when she and her cast (all but one are the original actors) returned to the play, first on Zoom. “The script lends itself to the idea that the women haven’t been in touch lately. They don’t remember whose birthday they’ve missed or how old people’s kids are…. Isolation, reconnections, tentativeness for all of us. Suddenly I understood that in a way I didn’t a year ago.”
“We were struck this fall out the insights everybody had into the characters, stuff we hadn’t caught the first time around. Having more time with it? Letting it sit?”
She points to the strange collective feeling, exhilarating but weird, of returning to the theatre in person, “and being amazed to see that this world still exists,” albeit with masks and without the standard theatre greeting, a hug. People are catching up with each other’s lives.
You’ll see that happening onstage (and in the lobby) at Walterdale this week.
Written by: Brad Fraser
Directed by: Louise Mallory
Starring: Ursula Pattloch, Elizabeth Marsh, Cinnamon Stacey, Nicolle Lemay, Anne Marie Szucs
Running: Wednesday through Dec. 18