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By Jeff Santa Barbara
Norm Foster has done it again! Or has he? Canada’s most
produced playwright is well known for delivering a
crowd–pleasing blend of humour and relatable human drama. In
Mending Fences, one of Foster’s newer works now playing at
Theatre Aquarius, he offers the same but different. This play has
no shortage of laughs, and the crowd is well pleased. But the
humour is woven into a narrative that unfolds with more subtlety
than Foster’s previous plays. This is a refined piece of theatre that
tugs heartstrings while tickling funnybones, but rises above pap
sentimentality to tell a genuinely interesting story.
Mending Fences introduces us to Harry Sullivan (played by
Foster himself), a crotchety ex–farmer living alone in rural
Saskatchewan. Harry is regularly visited by his neighbour and love
interest Gin (Heather Hodgson), whose feisty demeanour is a
welcome contrast to Harry’s gruff deadpan. Their quiet rural life is
disrupted when Drew (Derek Ritschel), Harry’s estranged son
gone these thirteen years, returns home. Drew’s motives for the
homecoming aren’t clear, nor are Harry’s feelings about his boy,
Gin acts as the catalyst for change here, trying to thaw
the chill between the two men. Whether she will succeed is truly
unknown until the final moments of the play.
Over the course of two brisk acts, Foster reveals a tragic
family history extending back into Harry’s childhood. First, we see
how Harry emotionally abandoned his wife — Drew’s mother —
even if she was the one who eventually left. Later, we delve
further back to trauma Harry experienced as a child, and we begin
to understand Harry’s abrasiveness a little better. In fact we darn
near admire his strength.
Drew is a bit of a mess when he pulls into the small town
train station. Separated from his wife and fired from his job, he
returns to his childhood home looking for answers to questions he doesn’t yet know. Does he just want to punish his father for driving him and his mother away? Or is he after something more?
This is all heavy stuff, but it never feels that way. In amongst the meaty drama is the spicy humour for which Foster is justly famous. Whether it’s fairly obvious grist — like Drew prying into his father’s sexual escapades — or something more surprising, undoubtedly Foster knows funny. This production is in its fourth incarnation, playing throughout Ontario before arriving in Hamilton. It’s clear why this version is a popular rendition.
Director Chris McHarge is fostering (ha!) a reputation for being Foster’s go–to guy. His pacing is spot on, keeping the action and the jokes clipping along while giving appropriate space to the weightier moments in the script. McHarge has brought on a fine pair of actors to match Foster’s natural comic timing. Heather Hodgson handles herself admirably as three women in the show, making each a distinct character. Derek Ritschel brings a strong earnestness to Drew, a little bit lost but similar to his father in more ways than he can admit. In many theatre circles, Norm Foster has a reputation for churning out formulaic, sitcom–like plays. Mending Fences isn’t a radical departure, but it does transcend his reputation. Sophisticated and layered, this play is as touching as it is funny.
See this if you like: Field of Dreams, Winston Churchill impressions, hockey–themed family heirlooms. Don’t see this if you don’t like: sex and fart jokes, male sympathy pain (ie. hearing about a guy getting a hockey puck to the sack).
Mending Fences Through November 8th @ Theatre Aquarius 190 King William, Hamilton TheatreAquarius.org