The Attic, the Pearls, and Three Fine Girls
by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald,
Alisa Palmer, and Martha Ross
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, January 2001
The danger with improvisation, and with "workshopped" scripts, is excess. It's very tempting to go to extremes when you're staying in character, coming up with dialogue, and looking for a good line or a good moment. People tend to let things meander, like a ouija board that nobody's actually controlling, and wind up becoming more and more angry, or hilarious, or depressed, or intense. Without the shaping and intentional intelligence of a playwright or two, who can insist on keeping the real world salient, remembering that characters have lives and goals beyond the moment, it's easy for things to get out of hand.
When scripts produced in those ways work -- as The Attic, the Pearls, and Three Fine Girls does, for the most part -- it's usually because the excess which is always there as a temptation is made an integral part of the show, acknowledged, dealt with. We stop expecting the characters to act the way people we know act, and we start looking to see what the excess and exaggeration tells us about the way the rest of us less excessive folks act.
In the case of the three Fine sisters, reunited uncomfortably by the death of their father, excess runs rampant, until by the finish we're watching a half-clothed lesbian power broker, a nearly psychotic frustrated academic, and a certifiably loony pregnant conceptual artist wrestling over an ancient yellow chiffon dress, a tambourine, and a cake knife in a deserted attic. Excessive? You bet. Funny? For sure. Significant and moving? Well, surprisingly, yes to that too.
It isn't yet quite clear to me how we come to care about these cartoonish characters. Some of the credit, clearly, is due to a fine production by TNB. But some, too, is due to a script which transcends its excess to bring us, by the end, if not to tears, to a moving recognition of the way people can share love even though they really can't share much else.
The premise is simple, and there's not much to the plot beyond the premise. Either the father's dying wish was that the girls would hold a party for him a week after his death, or the youngest Fine sister, Jelly, makes up the wish; it's not clear. Either way, the sisters organize and hold the party, at which, of course, they get drunk and confront each other with long-held grudges and contempt. Along the way, there are frequent wonderfully staged flashbacks to their childhood, and lots of strong, but often peculiar, comic moments. On opening night, the audience's laughter was scattered; regularly what you heard was one or two people broken up by a line or a incident, and then a moment later someone somewhere else in the audience would guffaw. The humour is edgy and targeted and often subtle; I never thought I'd laugh at the line "Someone left the cake out in the rain." I also thought JoJo's plea, "Why can't they eat bread?" (she's unable to to get cake) pretty funny; and I didn't notice the pun behind JoJo's charge that Jayne is "The Queen of Denial" in the script: I had to hear it spoken.
The most difficult of the sisters to play, I suspect, is the oldest, JoJo, who, it seems to me, switched pretty arbitrarily between a repressed, dowdy, lumpy-sweater and plaid-skirted striving academic and a nearly catatonic head case without much warning. Sherry Lee Hunter did as well as I can imagine: when she arrives in the attic, from the midst of the party, waving the cake knife around, it's pretty scary.
On the other hand, both the other sisters, Jayne (Mary Ellen MacLean) and Jelly (Shelley Wallace), are pretty consistent. MacLean does a wonderful sort of psychological (and, to a certain, family-oriented extent, physical) strip tease, from the self-possessed corporate shark at the beginning to the semi-clad, ravenous bisexual she's become by the final confrontation in the attic.
Wallace, as Jelly, is one of the most accomplished physical comedians I've seen on the Playhouse stage, reminding me of people like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in her timing, mugging, and physicality. She brilliantly devolves into young Jelly, abandoned in the attic by her sisters and screaming and kicking her feet; even more impressive, perhaps, is the early moment, at the end of the first scene, when she transforms herself, right before our eyes, from a giggling four or five year old child to a young adult on the phone to her sisters: "It's Dad. I think you better come home."
She has perhaps the strongest moment in the play, as Jelly (whom the other sisters suspect of having irresponsibly tossed away all their father's money during the preceding few months) explains where the money really went. After the climactic party, and at the moment when Jayne and JoJo are embracing and apologizing, she arrives and simply lists some things: "A respirator. I.V. stands. An adjustable bed. Bedpans. A catheter. Palliative care course . . . " and so on. "It costs a lot to die at home." It's clear that though Jelly's always going to be treated as the baby, she's one in the Mom role, the person who has the right to wear the pearls.
Typical of the script's sublety is the complicated and nicely-honed miscomprehension about Jelly's attempt to tell her sisters that she's found the long-lost pearls. They -- as always, not listening to her -- think she's angling to tell them she's pregnant. But since she's already told them that (at one of the many points when they weren't listening), it doesn't occur to her that they don't know.
The challenge for director Alisa Palmer is using the whole wide Playhouse stage and making what is, after all, a pretty small production into one that becomes a mainstage, wide-screen one. She makes this into part of the play's choreographed and unrealistic style: at two or three points, for instance, we find Jayne and JoJo, at opposite sides of the stage, mirroring each other's actions, as a way of showing us that even when they are literally at each others' throats they're sisters.
The size of the play is a difficulty on a number of fronts: there's really no need for all that room, so there's a physical challenge: but, as well, the play is a bit long for a one-acter, and a bit slender for a full evening. It's absolutely appropriate to the sort of established but intimate venue represented by Theatre Columbus in Toronto, where the script was originally developed, or Jest in Time in Halifax, where this production originated. Adapting all of that to the main stage and and the main (well, only) series at TNB was difficult, but Palmer and her company have done as well as I can imagine.
The physical design and the music are both impressive. For instance, when we first find ourselves in the attic, the three huge free-standing mullioned windows at the back slowly and silently rise and lean attentively forward to make what feels like rafters and skylights. It all gets progressively more dreamlike, abetted by the wildly colourful costumes and the almost surrealistically littered set, and the fine sound design and musical context). In fact, it's almost a cartoon: the colourful set, hung and strewn with castoffs and costumes, and especially Jelly's wonderful multicolored tights and thick-soled tennis shoes, make it all feel just excessive and exaggerated enough.
There, to be sure, are some of the kinds of problems that would be more serious if we thought of the play as more realistic -- Jelly brings her stack of boxes on stage and then, after they've been discussed, carries them off, and it's never suggested why she brought them on in the first place. But the bottom line is that this an edgy, dangerous and sometimes wonderful show, not much like anything else you're going to see at the Playhouse. Ignore the PR about its being a "heartfelt" show about "family"; these girls are a pretty dysfunctional group -- but I think you'll like them anyway.