The Americans are Coming
by Herb Curtis, adapted by Jenny Munday
Theatre New Brunswick
Often when the uptown folks think they need to appeal to the down home folks, what happens is a peculiar kind of arch condescension, a sort of patronizing presentation of rural people as cute, noble and ridiculous at once. I must confess that when I heard Theatre New Brunswick was going to do a dramatization of Herb Curtis's The Americans Are Coming I dreaded that we might be in for a sort of cross between Hee-Haw and an anglophone Lucien. I am relieved to report that I was wrong.
What we get from TNB is something a lot closer to a cross between Huckleberry Finn and a David Adams Richards novel. The script still seems a bit loose, and the ending is, well, just a sign that the writers had run out of time and good lines, but it doesn't play to the kinds of easy cliches I was afraid it might. Between Herb Curtis's ear for the language of the back woods and Jenny Munday's bright, quick wit the script gives the extremely competent cast enough to work with to create a solid evening's worth of fun, and even the occasional moment of unsentimental emotion.
Whether its humour would travel outside New Brunswick is a question I wondered about, but luckily, for right now, we don't have to worry. The audience on Wednesday night regularly chuckled with recognition -- and not just at the local references ("you don't have much trouble putting your hands on those Fredericton girls"). When the American sport, played expertly and with just the right amount of slick jolliness by Walter Learning, buys the last salmon pool on the Dungarvon for $1000 (when he'd been prepared to pony up $50,000), the audience's amusement at the "negotiation" was tempered with a sense that many of us have been there, thinking about how a dollar looks to a Massachusetts businessman on vacation and how different it looks to a part-time guide, woodsworker, truck gardener, carpenter and welfare recipient. In the lobby at intermission I heard people swapping stories about land deals and missed opportunities.
It's not a script that's very rich in plot, and the characters are, in general, caricatures: but, led by the three Miramichi "good old boys" who hang around the local store, the cast strikes a tone that lets us enjoy the exaggeration. This tone is set in large measure by the comic skill of Doug Tangney as the wonderfully voluble Lindon Tucker, whose headlong tumbles into discourse regularly bring gales of laughter, and whose repeated announcements that he is about to "go way down that road and over the hill" become a kind of chorus.
Also notable are David Hughes (who has done other fine work at TNB, most notably, perhaps, inThe Gin Game and The Importance of Being Earnest) as the understated storekeeper, and Deborah Allen as a solidly convincing Shirley Ramsay, the lonely matron trying to raise her youngest son and survive on the pittance she earns from running a local post office (about to be closed) and cadging what she can from the storekeeper.
The two boys who are in some sense the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of the play are performed with appropriate adolescent gawkiness by Colin O'Meara and David Young: I particularly enjoyed their curled-lip Elvis imitations. Jennifer Anderson is an appropriately lovely and innocent object of their affections. Dean Hawes, as Shadrack's father and a fine straight man to Hughes and Tangney, reminded me of Cliff the postman on Cheers. Dean Hawes plays Nutbeam, the reclusive trumpet blower who actually is the "Whooper," with surprising sensitivity. In many ways the character, with his enormous, deformed ears, seems intended to be a clown, but Hawes allows him to be more sympathetic than I might have expected. In general, the large cast worked well together; there was (as there needed to be) some real rapport between the three good old boys and the two good young boys.
The workable set, designed by Patrick Clark as a flexible arena with the potential to be a number of different spaces -- Shirley and Dryfly's home, Hanley's store, the riverbank by the salmon pool, Nutbeam's retreat -- was used fully, and the characters' movement around it was flexible, fluid and professional. For instance, there's a scene in which the boys and Nutbeam lead the three good old boys through the woods in search of the "Whooper," reminding me of Puck leading the Athenians around the Forest of Arden. But there were inconsistencies that seemed surprising.
Some are pretty minor -- why, for instance, is the full moon so prominently up there against the sky when there's a thunderstorm on? Why is the storm so unconvincing, and the gunshot so weak? Why does the radio (playing, to the delight of the audience, a clip from Jack Fenety's legendary CFNB "Fact and Fancy" morning show of years gone by) go off before the storekeeper turns it off? These are trivial, if distracting.
But there are problems that seem more important. Where people are supposed to be in relation to the set isn't always well defined. For instance, when Shirley Ramsey first comes to the store, it isn't at all clear when, or whether, she is "inside" the store. When Nutbeam comes to visit her home, similarly, we can't tell where the inside or outside of Shirley and Dryfly's house is. These are trivial things in one sense, but in another they have serious consequences for our involvement. Our attention isn't as sharply focused as it might be if these issues were clearly decided, agreed on, and presented. When the space in which a play occurs is as flexible as this, it needs to be kept clear when people move from one pretend place to another, and often Wednesday night it seemed not to matter much.
Still, the speed and comic sureness of Donnie Bowes' direction regularly hustled us past these problems, and I saw no one who didn't leave the theatre smiling. It's not often that a local script gets as lavish and thoughtful a production as this, and we should be grateful to Walter Learning and the TNB folks for putting it all together.