by Norm Foster, directed by Patricia Vanstone
Norm Foster Theatre Festival, FirstOntario Centre, St. Catharines
August 12-27, 2016
|Kirsten Alter, Sheila McCarthy, Lisa Horner, and Helen Taylor. 2016|
Janine: “I’ve seen what’s out there. That’s why I’m here”
The last play of the the first season of the Norm Foster Theatre Festival is the playwright’s own Halfway There . The Foster Festival is the first-ever theatre festival devoted to the work not only of a Canadian playwright, but of a living Canadian playwright. The Festival has also been granted the privilege of presenting world premieres all of Foster’s new plays starting with Halfway There . The show has an unbeatable cast featuring such luminaries as Sheila McCarthy and Lisa Horner. It’s a warm-hearted play that is sure to delight longtime Foster fans, and for those new to Foster this would be a great place to start.
The action is set in Junior’s diner in the town of Stewiacke, Nova Scotia (pop. 1438), whose claim to fame is that it is exactly halfway between the North Pole and the equator. (The town itself now admits that due to more accurate measurements, the town of Alton, N.S., can claim that distinction.) Every day at 4:30pm three women gather at the diner for a Kaffeeklatsch with their friend and waitress Janine (Kirsten Alter). Together Violet (Lisa Horner), Rita (Sheila McCarthy) and Mary Ellen (Helen Taylor) update each other on their private lives and rake over the town’s gossip. As Janine says, “There are no secrets in Stewiacke”.
What stirs things up is the arrival a young, handsome new doctor Sean Merritt (Darren Keay), who will take over the town’s regular doctor’s practice for a month while he is away on missionary work. Adding to Sean’s allure is the fact that he is single having just been dumped by his fiancée in Toronto. Of the four only Rita is available. Mary Ellen is married with children, Vi has been living with a man for nine years and Janine lives with Bradley, a man who is gone most of the time working the oil sands in Alberta. Sean, however, is instantly attracted to Janine, who herself is interested in Sean. For Janine there are impediments. She’s afraid that Sean has become so interested so fast because he is on the rebound from a bad relationship. She also feels a sense of duty toward Bradley (whom we never see). The questions that lead us through the action are first, whether Janine can set these cares aside to travel with Sean on a jaunt to Halifax, and second, what, if anything, the two will do when Sean’s month in Stewiacke is over.
Comedy in the play operates over a broad range from the humour of the characters’ diverse habits and personalities to satire of life in a very small town where everyone knows everything about everybody. The plot device that becomes more hilarious with each repetition is that every conversation that Sean has in strictest confidence with Janine turns outs to be known, commented upon and judged the next day by Janine’s three friends. Sean has to learn exactly how strong the bonds are among the four women. When he proposes taking Janine to Halifax with him so she can show him the city, he finds he needs the permission of Janine’s three friends to do so.
Superficially, Act 1 of the play feels very much like a sitcom with its collection of regulars with their distinct personalities gathering at its favourite spot and swooning over a male newcomer. Halfway There , however, is more complex than that. A principal characteristic of a sitcom is that the characters and their situation are the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Change, however, is what Halfway There is all about. We may think that the arrival of Sean is the main change in the otherwise static lives of the four women of Stewiacke, but as the action progresses it turns out that the dynamic between change and stability, in both small and large measure, characterizes every aspect of the action.
Foster’s characters may seem at first to be a simple collection of types. Rita is the vamp, Vi the wiseacre, Mary Ellen the mousy one, Janine the sensible one and Sean the bashful hunk. The more we get to know each character the more we find how radically their private lives and thoughts contrast with how we have labelled them. Foster is aware that the face people wear in private is not always the same face they wear in public and, as we discover, some of the jolliest of the characters are concealing the greatest unhappiness.
Director Patricia Vanstone has drawn superb ensemble acting from her diverse cast. From the very first moments of the play we experience the four women at Junior’s (represented by Sue LePage’s artfully realistic set) as a cohesive group and feel that they have all had a long history together. Being younger than the other women and being their waitress as well as their friend, Janine stands somewhat outside the group so that she becomes a kind of mediator between the three women and the newcomer. Kirsten Alter gives Janine a warm, instantly attractive personality, independent yet loyal to her friends, in which her outer no-nonsense attitude seems to hide an inner sense of longing. We identify with her from the start and only wish Foster had let us know more about how exactly she gave up a successful international career to become a waitress in a small town.
For his part Darren Keay is an ideal choice for Sean Merritt. He does come across like the bashful hunk everyone takes him for, but Keay subtly indicates through Sean’s reactions that a measure of sadness lies behind his good-humour. When Janine claims that his infatuation with her is only because he is on the rebound, Keay has this remark quite realistically haunt Sean as if Sean were actually not certain of his own motives.
The trio of women is of a very high calibre with multiple award-winners Sheila McCarthy and Lisa Horner and Shaw Festival veteran Helen Taylor. On the surface McCarthy’s Rita is a one-joke character, reacting over-enthusiastically whenever sex is mentioned, yet McCarthy is so skilled that she makes each of Rita’s reactions slightly different and her general air of faux demureness is a delight. But, as we discover, Rita’s enthusiasm is really a façade. Foster gives Rita a long, totally serious speech in Act 2 where she explains to Janine how she really feels and McCarthy makes this perhaps the most moving moment of the play. If the phrase “Halfway There” does not sound especially positive, Rita’s speech confirms that impression and suggests that the title, like the play, is not altogether comic.
Lisa Horner has played many mouthy dames in her time, so playing Vi is not much of a stretch, yet she is so marvellous at it and her timing so perfect she is a constant pleasure. Vi, too, is keeping a personal secret, and Horner is expert at portraying the change in Vi when her usual witty comebacks start to appear less effortless. Unlike her friends, Mary Ellen really has no secrets. In fact, much of the humour of her character is how someone so seemingly restrained has such a wild sex life with her husband. Taylor plays this beautifully, making Mary Ellen herself seem surprised at her good fortune. Foster gives Mary Ellen a speech that shows that Mary Ellen is quite aware of how ordinary she is and how grateful she is to her friends for making her feel special. It is a lovely speech, one that in many ways sums up Foster’s view of all his characters, and Taylor delivers it with great feeling.
While Halfway There ends in a celebration, it is a celebration tinged with melancholy since the stable, cozy world Foster introduced us to at the start will soon undergo a radical change. Yet is it still a celebration, one about appreciating the good things we have for the short time we have them. The Foster Festival has now given high calibre productions of all three plays in its first season. If you have not already discovered the joys of Norm Foster, now is a good time to start.