You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll love it

October 24, 2008

Gary Smith

The Hamilton Spectator

What: Mending Fences

Who: Theatre Aquarius

Where: Dofasco Centre for the Arts 190 King William St.

When: Now through Nov. 8 Tickets: 905-522-7529


Get set to laugh. Get set to cry. Mending Fences is the sort of comedy that steals your heart.

By now, if you're a regular Theatre Aquarius-goer, you know Norm Foster writes funny lines. Well, expect something more. Foster keeps the laughs coming all right in this taut take on a father and son at crisis point. But he also pulls the heartstrings.

We are on a farm in Saskatchewan, in Harry Sullivan's kitchen, looking at 13 years of neglect. That neglect is suggested metaphorically by a crayon scrawl on a cupboard door. A scrawl that has never been wiped clean. It's suggested, too, by Steve Lucas's slightly off-kilter set, a sort of Wyeth painting come to life. Everything is slightly askew, surreal in fact. It's as if the house you see were shorn open. As if it were grieving some great loss.

As Harry tries to reconnect with his grown-up son Drew after 13 years of estrangement, we understand what that wound is. Lucas's set suggests miscommunication, love unexpressed, a relationship kneecapped by misunderstanding. Between beers and shrugs Harry longs to embrace his son but can't. For his part the boy sits confused by the past, intimidated by the present, fearful for the future. He needs to know he's all right. He needs to know too, he's not responsible for the way life sometimes traps fathers and sons in sad isolation. Harry loves Drew. He just has a heck of a time saying so.

Then there's Gin, Harry's rambunctious girlfriend. She pads about his kitchen offering beer and consolation. She shares his bed, but would like to own his heart. A nervous, coltish filly, she's ready to run. Yet, underneath the brash exterior there's fear and a longing to be loved.

This is a play about loose ends, unfinished business, coming to terms. As Foster's comedy segues into its more serious second act, the laughter is used to deflect pain and regret. Beyond every obvious howl of mirth, there's a cry of pain. Have the sins of the father been visited on the son? Are Harry and Drew caught in a trap that spirals from out of the past? Is it possible to mend a relationship as easily as Harry mends the broken fence at the end of his land? Before Foster is through, some serious things get said and what amounts to an emotional climax will probably cause you to reach for a hanky.

A trio of actors play a number of related roles in this touching play. Derek Ritschel as Drew, Young Drew and Young Harry, will break your heart. He's warm and lovable, washed over with desperation that seeps from every pore.

Foster, starring as Harry as well as Harry's Dad, has wonderful stage chemistry. By the play's final, crucial moments, he shucks off his innate comic energy to reveal a man bewildered by love, yet desperate to hold it tight.

Heather Hodgson makes Gin, Lori and Harry's Mom a hurricane force. She's a physical actress who never finds a real point of stillness. I know as Gin she's supposed to be hurting inside, masking pain with surface bravado, but oh dear, she's all frenetic gestures, a bundle of squiggles and wiggles. I longed to see a bit more pain rising to the surface now and then.

Chris McHarge has directed this moving comedy with attention to Foster's serious side, as well as his patented comic facility. It's significant for instance, when Mending Fences ends there's no comic button, usually a feature of most Foster plays. No final laugh line folks, just a long slow slink into darkness. Lovely!

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 25 years.