by Sally Clark
Theatre UNB (Lactose Free Productions)
Len Falkenstein and his crew at Theatre UNB approached the first problem by designing a set composed almost entirely of various black and white rectangular objects, which can be arranged to stand in for almost anything except a bed (which, when needed, was whisked onstage by the cast and set on a couple of blocks), and a few props. Most important, they chose a list of popular songs, almost all about the blind helplessness of mere mortals in the face of the mysteries of love (a perfect one: "can't help loving that man of mine" ), to act as "stingers" between scenes, to keep us amused at their appositeness and to signal the move, often otherwise almost imperceptible, from scenes to between scenes and back. They also kept most of the actors on stage most of the time, seated at the back of the stage when not part of a given scene. All this worked very nicely to make what might have seemed pretty fragmented into a seamless and, eventually, even moving experience.
The second, more difficult, problem was confronted by casting the lively, confident, and remarkably statuesque Helen Walls as Moo. Though there were moments when her shaping of lines was somewhat strange, and I was more convinced by her as a seductress than as an adolescent or a mother or a broken-hipped octogenarian, she, too, managed to make the script come together as a whole for us, mainly by her constant, electric vivacity.
Sally Clark seems to have intended to the play to be a sort of historical reconstruction, a look back behind the simple figure of Moo as an aged, senile old woman whose "life had been ruined" because of her "seduction" by the "rotter" Harry Parker. Seen from that perspective (the perspective invited by Clark's own preface to the published play), Moo is an attempt to fill in the blanks, to understand how it might be that someone's life might be seen by her sisters and other people around her as having been "ruined," but by herself as having been a pretty good run. We watch her through a fairly disastrous series of events -- being "accidentally" shot in the head by Harry Parker and her sister, being dumped into an insane asylum and left for five years, spending her life obsessed with the absent Parker to the extent that her own life and family get shoved aside -- and we are invited to see her not only as a victim but also, and at the same time, as a vibrant, carefree, adventurous woman making her own decisions, often catastrophic ones, and coping with them with spirit and wit.
In a way, the play enacts what is the central problem it confronts: how can an intelligent and relatively sane person find someone like Harry Parker attractive? We are invited, as an audience, to find many of the characters in the play -- most notably, of course, Moo herself, but also including Harry Parker and Moo's niece, Susan, attractive even though, like Harry, a reasonable person would judge them to be pretty unacceptable, and perhaps even repellent.
This poses problems for the other principal actors. Both Moo's sisters (played by Alex Baird and Laura Biggar) are so repellent that even though Clark may have hoped we'd have some understanding of them, they remain caricatures. Baird and Biggar managed to make them clear and effective, but we didn't really want to see more of them. And Chris Miller, in the other challenging role -- one whose ambivalent charm I think it's clear Clark certainly hoped we'd recognize -- has an even more difficult time. His almost complete lack of affect, and his total self-centredness, make him a kind of comic Iago. Miller played this straight and deadpan, but he never seemed quite charming enough to make us share Moo's (or other women's) attraction to him.
Helen Walls' Moo, on the other hand, even when in the midst of coldly dismissing her son from her life, or expressing her boundless contempt for her sisters and her family, did manage -- partly simply by the force of Sally Clark's wit -- to evoke empathy, even when Moo is hopelessly and abjectly, and senselessly, flinging herself at the incomprehensibly attractive Harry Parker.
Four other members of the cast played multiple roles, jumping from their seats at the rear to become, as needed, hospital orderlies, nurses, desk clerks in remote and exotic hotels, doctors, and members of Moo's family. I was particularly struck by Karen Buchanan's smarmy nurse (both in the mental hospital and later in the nursing home), and by Andrew Millar's bluff and uncomprehending stupidity as Moo's father. Hope Lenehan was an affectingly serious Susan (Moo's niece, who realizes in the play's climax that Moo, whom she'd idolized, actually had kept her at arm's length away from her life as well -- and who, it seems, is the figure with whom the author is most sympathetic).
On the whole, this was a solid, enjoyable, and often extremely funny, production. If the audience came away a little less than satisfied, it seems to me it is a problem with the script itself, which, in the last analysis, seems not to offer us much more insight into the nature of love than the popular songs the Theatre UNB folks interjected into it. "I'm just wild about Harry," sang the speakers, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it," "I'm through with love, I'll never fall again." 16 bars' worth of Tin Pan Alley philosophy -- however clever, witty, and appropriate -- isn't really enough to fill a whole evening or to build sympathy for characters around.