Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Pulse Niagara
Fences is a must-see
Norm Foster, Heather Hodgson and Derek Ritschel

With Mending Fences, Canada's most prolific playwright has raised his own standards from dependable and good to savvy and grand. The occasional slow spots and uneven pace of earlier work have been purged in the early edits. We're left with a show that makes two hours vanish even as its frequent doses of relationship -truth have the crowd howling, squirming or tearing up as the fictional situations trigger factual memories. Theatre doesn't get much better than that.

Theatre in Port wisely reunited Norm Foster with director Chris McHarge to put together this world première production. With nine other plays brought to life over the years, it's little wonder that this effort flows as smoothly as the Russian vodka and Canadian beer drown the sorrows of Harry Sullivan (Foster) and his first wife, Lori (Heather Hodgson). Set in rural Saskatchewan, the risk of living in isolation is brought home from curtain to curtain. But even those who live in well-populated areas will identify with the notion that it is a lack of communication rather than acres of empty real estate that can rip family units into smithereens.

Until now, Foster acts in his own plays only after the initial production has run its course. In this work, with so many threads of autobiography woven into the fabric, it's hard to imagine anyone else in this part. The six-pack before driving, ("Should you be driving?"; "Probably not.") absentee father struggles with his pride both at work (now a janitor after mad cow disease wiped out the herd) and in bed ("I've had longer farts."). Told through lower-the-lights flashbacks, we see Harry's marriage disintegrate. Drew (Derek Ritschel), starved for affection and forced to play team sports, departs with his mom back to civilization ("32 hours away") after her final straw (thrown by a horse, whose name, "Nomad", seems just a bit too on-the-nose). An Act II moment worth the price of admission alone is the mother/son scene where Foster's "invisible" countenance speaks louder than the whole script about the hidden agony of family breakdowns. Marvellous.

Thirteen years later, Drew suddenly reappears. Father and son haven't had a word since the rupture. Harry is bedding his next door neighbour, Gin (ironically short for Virginia, also played by Hodgson) whose husband committed suicide because of his own failure and "loving me too much." Like a Mozart opera, Foster pens all manner of duets and trios, using every combination imaginable, to reveal character, backstory and provide many moments of tears-in-your eyes laughs. The snappy dialogue between protagonists becomes a ritornello between the two that is always enjoyable even in its predictability, bonding by epithet supreme. The only drawback to this device is the slight weakening of the impact when "Cat's ass" shifts characters. Having an aversion to teams, and especially hockey, Drew has become a golf pro and father. Unfortunately for him, his indiscreet conquest of the club president's wife on the back nine left him unemployed and confined to a permanent seat in the doghouse. What better time to visit another uncaring dad?

Ritschel as Drew brings an engaging freshness and earnest "desire to please" to the role. As the performances continue he will, no doubt, (largely through the process of osmosis) deepen his inner pain with subtle gestures and looks that Foster's long experience summons up effortlessly in nearly every scene. It falls to Hodgson to deliver the dramatic showstopper. Her near-manic rail against men ("They only know how to fight.") allows her own frustrations to vent with passion and conviction that the majority of the stronger sex can only imagine. Prior to this explosion, the cautious widow is extolling the virtues of her seven-bean salad (not all of which was devoured at the union social). In the aftermath of her diatribe, the guilty Harry and Drew demonstrate their peas-in-the-pod demeanour not through words but from a brilliant bit of finger business that, once again, propels this show into the must-see category.

Those who revel in bathroom humour and bawdy banter won't go away disappointed. From perky nipples, to "Want to see my driver?", to the etiquette of wearing a borrowed "cup," Foster's playful sense of naughty keeps the chuckles, winks and guffaws coming easily. Fortunately, those yuks and the abundance of sarcasm liberally sprinkled with moral inertia only serve to reinforce the tragedies that masquerade as people's lives on and off stage.

By journey's end, the metaphorical engine in the bedroom is turning over and the back-forty fence is fixed, but the future hopes and happiness of the players must await the next installment from Foster's ever-active imagination.

[James Wegg]

@ Theatre In Port (905)934-0575

Running through December 31, 2006