'Mending Fences' strong but has a few minor barbs
By Jim Carnes...Published: Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009 | Page 2D
3 1/2 stars

Actor-playwright Norm Foster is not only a favorite with theaters and audiences in his native Canada, he's a favorite with the folks at B Street Theatre, too. The fine "Mending Fences," which received its U.S. premiere there Saturday, is the fifth Foster play presented at the theater. ("The Melville Boys," "The Affections of May," "Drinking Alone" and "The Motor Trade" are the others.) Foster's plays blend humor and drama, not necessarily in equal parts.

"Mending Fences" has more than its share of laughs - big laughs, raunchy laughs - but the humor is woven into a dramatic narrative that unfolds with more subtlety than many of Foster's works.

The play is set in a neglected farmhouse in Saskatchewan, Canada, owned by Harry Sullivan (sturdily played by Phil Cowan). Harry hasn't seen his son Drew (Michael Navarra) in 13 years, not since Harry's wife left and took the kid - the reason why will quickly become painfully obvious. Now Drew is coming to visit his dad - the reason not as obvious but just as painful. Father and son have not spoken in all that time.

Stephanie McVay plays Harry's widowed neighbor Gin (Virginia, "the woman whose husband hanged himself"), whose intimate yet cautious relationship with Harry is tested, not by Drew's arrival so much as it is by Harry's demeanor - toward both of them. "You can say 'I love you' (actually, Harry can't), but if you don't show it, it's the same as not saying it," she tells him.

The play alternates between past and present as the scene shifts from the ranch today to the time when Harry's marriage was disintegrating and even before that to his childhood, when we see a related demise of his parents' relationship. Flashback scenes are signaled by lowering the lights, but the overall level of brightness is insufficient to signal immediately what the time period is.

The three actors play all the parts. Cowan is dependably distant as Harry and as Harry's father; Navarra alternates between youthful enthusiasm (as the young Harry in flashbacks) and emotionally reticent as Drew. In addition to playing Gin, McVay appears as Harry's former wife and as his mother. It's during these scenes that director Elisabeth Nunziato's production gets a little unfocused. McVay is a strong physical actress, but all three women appear to be about the same age in their various time periods, and there is little to differentiate between her characters. Sometimes, McVay enters the room and you wonder, "Who is she this time?"

McVay delivers her lines with spirit, particularly as the gritty Gin, whose interchanges with Harry - sexual, profane, funny - are impeccably timed. Well-timed, too, are Harry's and Drew's exchanges of curses - and their frank references to physical and athletic "equipment." In the second act, this comedy about unfinished business and coming to terms with oneself and one's family turns poignant. Harry and Drew struggle with why they are the way they are (Does the inability to express emotion run in families?) and what, if anything, they can do about it.

An unseen tractor engine - a repair project taken on by Harry and finished by Drew - symbolizes the father-son relationship well. At play's end, it sputters and starts. How long it will run remains a question. But at least it starts.