Thursday 14 January 2016

In A Blue Moon : love lost, love found in family

Synopsis & serendipity :  A dad dies young. Just 40, from diabetes complications largely self-inflicted. With his passing, Mom and daughter can't afford Vancouver anymore. They hie off to a Kamloops farmhouse on 10 acres Dad left them, his childhood family home. They find his brother Will there basically claiming squatter's rights to the otherwise vacant homestead. Understandably a lot of tension arises at first. But thanks to the daughter, these three become, over time, a new kind of family. So. Not an astonishing plot line -- probably a more frequent occurrence than a blue moon in such fractious and unsettled family times as these -- but in this case heightened by knowing parts of all this mimic real life to a T.

Fact is Mom Ava is played by Anita Wittenberg Tow, and daughter Frankie is played by 17-year-old Emma Tow. The poignant connection is this : for three years the late Jeremy Tow collaborated with Western Canadian Theatre in Kamloops and then was its artistic director before brain cancer claimed him in September, 2010. The draw between his wife and daughter as IABM's cast in this fictional script is, therefore, a magnetizing and touching phenomenon. Director Daryl Cloran refers to the Tows as "a cherished local family" whom he lauds as regular performers at WCT each season. Emma, meanwhile, also choreographed the script and is honoured in a recent interview by playwright Lucia Frangione as being "my muse" thanks to all her various music and dance and thespian skills.

But back to the script. To round out the 3-hander is Uncle Will (Brett Christopher), a freelance itinerant photographer who's not taken much interest in his brother's family over the years and even skipped his brother's Celebration of Life down in Vancouver. Now, however, 6-year-old Frankie finds a role model in him even as she tries to process the recent death of her dad Peter. Dad is brought back into the mix both through the memories that each of Ava and Frankie and Will share, also through family photographs from over the years. "Family matters" are two words that parse immediately as adjective-noun but take on a more subtle and vast importance as noun-verb.

From the footlights : The script fundamentally toggles between Frankie fresh off Dad's death at age six and Frankie as a precocious arty-smarty 14-year-old on warpath footing with her vegan namaste Mom who preaches and practices the 5,000 year old Indian traditions of Ayurveda, or whole life natural healing. 

Along the way Uncle Will acts as a buffer between Frankie and her mom and as a reality anchor for sister-in-law Ava so she won't lose the farm. He talks her into chickens, eggs and beef cattle despite her vegematic mindset : "You can buy them organic feed, smooth their frontal lobes and sing them Kumbaya," Will kids her. Ava acquiesces. The homestead thrives and Ava builds up a successful "yogi wu-wu spa", as Will calls it, despite the farmgate clinic being located miles out of Kamloops at Monte Lake.

Viewers expect Will will woo Ava out of what he calls her widow's role as a new age nun : one who "drinks a lot of green tea and lets her moustache grow" he teases Frankie. And he does in a way. But then there's on-again off-again GF Evelyn to contend with. Mostly Will charms Frankie and becomes surrogate dad to her. Of Mom's morning smoothie, Will quips "It smells like a cross between bullfrog and baby poo." Frankie, ever-clever even at six, ripostes : "It's mashed-up berries and cow snot!" Clearly such early camaraderie will lead to a close close bond between them. 

What the show brings to the stage : This is a charming piece of work. Quite delightfully wrought. The jump-shifts between Frankie at six and Frankie at 14 occur seamlessly. To create a convincing pair of Will and Ava to thrust and parry as in-laws and potential lovers and Frankie's parents, both real and stand-in, required considerable skill on Ms. Frangione's part. She credits long-time ACT dramaturge Rachel Ditor for her constancy to finally pull the play off over a period of some eight years of writing & hacking & smoothing & refocusing the piece yet again. 

Most Boomers have witnessed family events quite similar to what occurs with the Armitage family here. Death. Aloneness. Regret. Anger. Blame. Bitterness. Wonder. Fright. Angst. And much as we warm to the concepts of forgiveness and acceptance so richly captured in the expression "Don't push the river!", our reach usually exceeds our grasp. We ache and we strive and we urge ourselves on but often without full release, just "some". And In A Blue Moon embraces all that tenderly and touchingly and tellingly. 

Particularly impressive was Frangione's capture of Ava's unrelenting, unrequited anger at her late hubby Peter for what she considers his self-indulgent demise from diabetes due to compulsive bad diet and no exercise. Visceral, disquieting dialogue there indeed, proof positive how love and hate are often married. 

Acting pin-spots : Emma Tow is sheer delight as Frankie. She is indeed a talented performer with a future whose fiddle chops and ballet prowess are given broad exposure at play's end. But it is her hopping-&-skipping and finger-pointing and dancing about as the fidgety fussy Frankie-the-6-year-old that grab our grins the most. A Brava! performance indeed.

The electricity, both positive and negative, between Will and Ava had terrific wiring back to real life. Sparks will naturally result when family folk are thrust into new-life roles under the same roof. Their dynamics struck this viewer from experience as an energy very true and honest and accurate. 

As the needy but proud and determined Ava, Anita Wittenberg was full mettle. And with his stentorian baritone, Brett Christopher's Will was commanding : his yin-yang struggle for independence and self-fulfillment finally succumbs to the yang cohort, not surprisingly, but yin visits him and his new family on occasion, too.

Production values of note : Drew Facey's set of bleached-out barn board on tiered platforms worked well indeed for staging. The barn board fridge, however, was a stretch : a droopy-eared 1950's Coldspot would have worked better. The ginormous backdrop moon that was screen for Conor Moore's projected photo shots was spot-on. And John Gzowski's ear for a mix of contemporary guitar riffs and soft drones behind deserves note.

Who gonna like : As suggested above, this is a show for folks who've lived through some real-life tough emotional times and struggled with how doubt and fear and hope and determination shadow-box each other daily. Not designed with the easy comforting repartee in mind that Friends fans rely on, IABM instead wants viewers to taste and savour the dialogue of existential pain and anger and hope that playwright Frangione has worked so skillfully to produce. To say it again : In A Blue Moon is tender and touching and telling.

Production : Script by Lucia Frangione.  Producers Arts Club Theatre in association with Western Canada Theatre (Kamloops) in their 40th Anniversary season & 1000 Islands Playhouse (Gananoque, ON).  Director Daryl Cloran (Artistic Director, Western Canada Theatre). Assistant Director Randi Edmundson.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Marian Truscott.  Sound Designer John Gzowski.  Choreographer Emma Tow.  Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Assistant Stage Manager Rachel Bland.  Apprentice Stage Manager Madison Henry.  Tour Technician Alberto White.  

Performers : Brett Christopher (Will).  Emma Tow (Frankie).  Anita Wittenberg (Ava).

Venues, dates & phone ticket office contact numbers :

Surrey Arts Centre,  January 13-23,  604.501.5566

Clarke Theatre,  Mission,  January 25,  1.877.299.1644

Evergreen Cultural Centre,  Coquitlam, January 26-20,  604.927.6555

Pavilion Theatre, Kamloops,  April 28-May 7,  250.370.5483.

1000 Islands Playhouse, Gananoque, Ontario,  August 12-28,  1.866.386.7020.


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