The Best Little Whorehouse In Port Dover
 
By Gary Smith
The Hamilton Spectator (June 13, 2006)
 

When Norm Foster writes a play people usually pay attention. After all, our Norm is one of the major providers of fodder for summer and regional theatres across the country. He's also a staple at Theatre Aquarius where a Foster comedy turns up on the main stage pretty well every season. Well, the good news is, Jenny's House of Joy, the latest from the big guy from Ancaster, is a four-alarm hit. This sassy summertime treat is funny, touching and ripe with comic surprises to keep you engaged to the very end. And when the lights finally fade on a crackerjack Lighthouse Festival Theatre production of this ingratiating little comedy, you feel you really know the feisty broads who brawl, bawl and generally break your heart. Foster hasn't written such engaging female characters in years.

 
   
'The girls' who work at Jenny's House of Joy include, from left, the madam herself, Christy Bruce (Jenny), Mary Ashton (Anita), Maria Dinn (Natalie), Patricia Vanstone (Frances).

Those who complain his comedies are too male-centred are in for a shock here. Though we do get to know Earl and Cecil and the other good old boys who visit Jenny Starbuck's Baxter Springs brothel, it's strictly through the eyes of the spirited women who walk them up that flight of stairs to three buck heaven. So when smart-mouthed old Frances, genteel little Anita and butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth Natalie let fly with the caustic remarks about the fly-by-night bedmates who keep them up nights, we certainly take notice. Along the way too, we learn a lot about these hard-workin' gals and the way they bond between stints in Jenny's upstairs rooms.

Foster sets his comedy in the 1870s and his flinty one-liners punctuate robust dialogue that builds in impact to create humane and very human beings that live as best they can in a world where women haven't the options they have today. Foster calls his play a Western, not a comedy, and indeed there are plenty of references to a world of love-starved cowpokes, ready-cocked guns and women who live by their wits. Before Foster's comedy is through, you feel you know these likable women. You long for them to fulfil the hopes and dreams that drive them on in their quest for love.

Patricia Vanstone is a standout as the tough-talking Frances, a woman on the far side of 40, hiding from real intimacy because she learned long ago that sex has little to do with love --well, at least for her. Maria Dinn is a believable good girl, ready to turn tough when the chips are finally down. She projects a guarded sweetness that defines what it means to be inherently innocent, yet able to dish it out when life deals her a double punch. Mary Ashton makes a vulnerable, warm-hearted Anita, searching for the man who will love her for something more than her willing body. Under the watchful eye of Christy Bruce's elegant, steely-eyed Jenny, "the girls" reveal layers of tough and disturbing truth, truth that makes them far more vulnerable than any hard-hearted cliches.

Only Bonnie McDougall's Clara has been encouraged to play over the top, giving her angry wife routine too much rant and roar.

Chris McHarge has directed this agreeable package with good attention to pace, and William Chesney has set the play down in an attractive vintage parlour that is just red enough to suggest brothel. Jenny's House of Joy is one of Foster's best plays in years.

It's at The Lighthouse Festival Theatre, 247 Main St., Port Dover, through June 30. Call 1-888-779-7703 for performance times and tickets. Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 25 years.