by Norm Foster
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, November 2000
Probably there's no one with something to sell who doesn't try to cash in on the Christmas season -- except, perhaps, fireworks manufacturers or Halloween costume vendors. Certainly every cultural enterprise I know of makes a point of hooking itself, as best it can, into the benevolence-fired spending frenzy our culture works itself up into every fall. Theatre traditionally does this by offering a "Christmas show" designed to attract a young audience -- and, of course, their parents. And this makes sense for theatres strapped for money, like Theatre New Brunswick, and for theatres which need to make themselves relevant to a new audience, also like Theatre New Brunswick. If one runs of the risk of patronizing or condescending to that audience (as TNB did a few years ago with Kringle's Window), one can also strike gold (the way they did with Peter Pan in 1998), and create a show which does what good children's art should do: unite adults and children in a common experience; and at the same time demonstrate what theatre can do that other art forms can't.
So it was with some surprise that I learned that this November TNB was reviving a play by Norm Foster called Ethan Claymore. Though it clearly represents a nod to the season, it's not -- nor is TNB selling it as -- the "show for the kids" we've come to expect. There are a couple of kids in it, and it takes place at Christmastime, but there's no reason to expect it to wean them from the tube or Playstation2 or surfing the Web.
Ethan Claymore is a straight-ahead enactment of a heartwarming episode in the life of a rural community. The local back-to-the-lander, now a long-established and fairly unsuccessful egg farmer (Ethan Claymore, played with firm confidence by Wally MacKinnon), has, five years ago, lost his wife to leukemia and retreated into his house (the setting of the play). His neighbour, Douglas (Walter Learning, in what is becoming his trademark bluff, direct, and boisterous best form) decides abruptly and with great enthusiasm that the time for mourning is over, that the arrival of a new schoolteacher in the community is an occasion for some country-style matchmaking, and it's time for the egg farmer to get out and find a mate. Simultaneously, we learn that Claymore's long-estranged brother Martin has died suddenly of a heart attack.
When the dead Martin (played brilliantly by C. David Johnson) shows up in the midst of Douglas's attempts to get Ethan out of his five year funk, announcing that he's on a mission to straighten somebody's life out, we begin to anticipate that things are likely to get heartwarming. But before they do, we're treated to some wonderfully timed confusion, as Martin and Ethan carry on one conversation, and Martin and Douglas another, complicated by the fact that Douglas can neither see nor hear Martin, so takes everything Ethan says to his brother as directed at him. And Johnson's Martin Claymore is a superlative performance: saturnine, skeptical, and expertly timed, his cynical car salesman is a wonderful foil to the sentimental direction the plot drives us in. He's still regretting the loss of the sale he was about to make as he died, still trying to negotiate a better deal with the unseen forces who've sent him here. He explains that, no, he can't do magic ("Why is it that when you die people think you're David Copperfield?"), although in fact it turns out he can. At one wonderful moment he claivoyantly tells Ethan to answer the door. "What?" says Ethan, and, after a beat, there is a knock at it. "God, this is fun," says Martin delightedly.
Unfortunately, it's not enough. The script presents the cast with some serious problems, and the production doesn't give them much help solving them. There are simply too many incomprehensible inconsistencies or inexplicable events, right from the opening scene. Douglas shows up, in either the middle of the night or the predawn darkness, pounding on Ethan's door and rousing him from bed. Why? We assume there's some emergency, but it develops that he's just there to announce that he's decided to bring Ethan out of mourning. Having made the announcement, and told Ethan to go back to bed, he goes back to his own house. Are we to conclude that he's a psychopath? No, we're to draw no conclusions about his behavior; it seems to be simply a device to begin the play dramatically and bring Douglas on stage in his underwear and get the exposition over with. Similarly, Douglas's announcement that "I won't rest until I find you the perfect Christmas tree, Ethan," seems completely unmotivated or prepared for -- and to exist only in order that he can fail to do so, ultimately arriving with a pathetic Charlie Brown style tree ("what?" one thinks, "they live in rural Canada: a ten minute walk could get a more presentable tree") which seems to exist only for the laugh it extorts as he brings it in. It's impossible to imagine where such a tree could come from: there is a running joke in the play about his visiting Christmas tree lots looking for the "perfect tree," but clearly there's no lot this could have come from, nor any way anyone would have cut it unless he were deliberately trying to find the Charlie Brown tree. So what's the point? The tree got the laugh: we're not supposed to ask questions.
Shannon McCaig, as Teresa, the object of the matchmaking ghost and the matchmaking neighbour's parallel attentions, has the unenviable task of seeming to be shy, because she says she is, while at the same time her lines put her in the position of making no more bones about announcing her predatory intentions toward Ethan than Mark Knopfler's lovesick Romeo ("You and me, babe. How about it?"). Indeed, all the characters in the play are stuck with announcing their characteristics, their intentions, and their feelings in ways that are so direct that they become unbelievable. McCaig does her best to appear demure and retiring, but she has to show up at Ethan's door and introduce herself, knowing that he's actually not one of the parents of the children in her class. (Or perhaps she's not supposed to know that -- it's not made clear: but I don't know a teacher who wouldn't have some record of who her children's parents were after four months in the community -- or who wouldn't have done something about meeting them before December 21.)
The young actors who play Ethan and Martin in the flashbacks to their childhood which explain how they became estranged are faced with the same kinds of problems: they need to say, with a wooden kind of directness, things that I can't believe any boy would ever say -- for instance, when Ethan (played by Jon Mann) apologizes to his brother for having accidentally caused the injury that ruined his chances to play hockey, he does so in the sorts of terms he'd be told to use by some adult authority instructing him to apologize. Mann does his best to make it sound real, but I've never heard a kid use phrases like that. Regularly, throughout the script, things that should be dramatized -- the evolution of a relationship between Ethan and Teresa, the growing understanding between Martin and Ethan -- are simply stated by one or the other of the participants.
More seriously, the advent and solution of the play's problems (particularly the sudden announcement that Ethan needs $5000 to pay off his mortgage, and the utterly arbitrary way Martin magically -- a la David Copperfield -- solves his problem) have little connection to each other or to the characters, or little opportunity to engage the audience.
Technically, there are problems as well. The direction -- except in the timing of the confused and misfiring exchanges between Martin and Ethan and Douglas -- seemed wooden and unimaginative. For instance, when young Ethan comes running in to tell his father that his brother has been hurt, he sits down to tell his news.
And although the lighting outside the front window of the house elegantly told us, at various times, that the moon was shining, that it was dawn, and that it was snowing, in general the lighting was awkward. For instance, the lighting change which announced every flashback to the younger Martin and Ethan was simply a surprising, sudden change in the direction of the light, of the kind you might expect in a production without the technical resources of the Playhouse.
I'm sorry not to be able to recommend Ethan Claymore more highly. As everyone knows, Theatre New Brunswick needs to generate some new audience and some new enthusiasm; I can't see that this production will do that for them. Those of us who think that even a rough and unpolished live production like this is a better way to spend an evening than at any canned (dead) entertainment on TV or at the movies, will go, and enjoy brilliant moments like those engineered by C. David Johnson. But the chance to bring some new folks into the fold has, I fear, been lost.
Perhaps I should feel gratified that at least TNB doesn't seem to be trying to cash in on Christmas.