London Free Press

 

THEATRE REVIEW

Norm Foster's latest play imparts gentle emotion and uplifting humour

By Ian Gillespie, The London Free Press Thursday, April 25, 2013 7:53:39 EDT PM
 
From left, Julia Webb, Rachel Jones and John Turner star in The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby at the London Convention Centre Theatre.  
 

Somebody who knew what they were talking about once said, 'Easy reading is damn hard writing.' Whatever the source, I think you can change 'easy reading' to 'easy listening' and apply it to theatre.

And when you do, you'll be forced to admit that nobody makes it look and sound easier than prolific Canadian playwright Norm Foster.

Foster's new play The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby, which is premiering at the London Convention Centre until May 4, is a sterling example of Foster's facility with gentle emotion and heartwarming humour. Enjoying this play is easier--and much funnier--than falling off a dock.

In this vastly entertaining production from missing link theatre (a troupe that prefers a lower-case moniker), Foster mines the same motif that's been exploited by TV shows like Green Acres and plays like the Wingfield Cycle by Dan Needles and Rod Beattie---the city slicker who finds himself transported to a bewildering world of rural reality.

In this case, we're presented with uptight urban investment banker James Bell who, after his car breaks down near the sleepy hamlet of Kooshog Lake, finds himself struggling like a fish out of water. Or in this case struggling with a fish in water, as Bell finds himself lured into the town's annual fishing derby, which offers a $92,000 prize to the angler who can catch a legendary catfish. When briefly hooked 23 years earlier, the fish reminded the fisherman of a high-school shop teacher named Hollis McCauley (a comic touch that provoked glee from the mainly high-school audience at Thursday's final preview).

Foster has often been called Canada's Neil Simon for his ability to cloak gentle truths in unerringly funny dialogue, and Fishing Derby proves to be no exception. Whether talking about shark attacks, cow teats, petting zoos or the mistaken identification of a woman’s backside with a docking pier, Foster manages to draw outrageous comments from his characters, and make the zany zingers seem completely natural. He also knows how to sow a comic seed---say, for instance, the confusion over a character's Hollywood-sounding name ---and then make it bloom into later laughter with a well-timed kicker. "Did you tell him we understand the Spartacus reference?" is a line, for example, whose hilarious pay-off comes nearly two hours after Foster plants the necessary set-up.

Of course, it's not just empty yucks here. Foster also pokes around themes of age and youth, dreams and regret, and the conflict between country contentment and big-city striving. But none of it would work without the faultless work of director Rick Kish and his wonderful cast.

This is a fine example of ensemble acting; Dwayne Adams (who, as James Bell, balances clownish timing with genuine subtlety), Julia Webb (whose world-weary portrayal of Sienna is tinged with sadness), John Turner (who can turn a line about porcupines into true wisdom), Martha Zimmerman (who takes some rewarding risks with her over-sexed Rhonda) and Rachel Jones (whose winsome vulnerability as Melonie anchors much of the action) all know when to take---and give---focus.

Some might quibble with a few details of the workable set (I couldn't help being bothered by the placement of a velour-covered easy chair on the uncovered porch of the general store; would any outdoorsy person really do that?), and a few might accuse Foster of drawing out the play's conclusion (I counted at least four plausible endings) in an attempt to wrap things up into a tidy bow, but those are trivial complaints. If you, like me, are growing tired of real-world terror, then I urge you to cast away your troubles and savour a Canadian comedy that traffics unabashedly in human goodness.

ian.gillespie@sunmedia.ca twitter.com/IanatLFPress - - -

IF YOU GO What: World premiere of Norm Foster's The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby, presented by missing link theatre company, directed by Rick Kish, starring Julia Webb, Martha Zimmerman, John Turner and Rachel Jones, along with the return of Dwayne Adams who starred in the company's first production, A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.

Where: London Convention Centre, 300 York St.

When: Through May 4. For times go to grandtheatre.com

Tickets: $25 available at the door, by calling 519-672-8800, or online at grandtheatre.com Rating: **** 1/2 (out of five)