You can surmise a couple of things from the title of Stewart Lemoine’s play, receiving its Toronto debut 18 years after its Edmonton premiere. Like The Exquisite Hour, which producing company the Theatre Department launched with in 2012, Pith! is not much more than a hour—brevity being the soul of wit, after all. Pithy does in part mean concise, but “pith”? Well, it can mean “the essence,” and this play is concerned with getting to the essence of play, and by extension, a play.
Jack Vail (Ron Pederson) is a sailor and adventurer who, on a whim, decides to see what sort of adventures can be had in Providence, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1931. He’s just disembarked from a long sea voyage, and craves more genteel company, which he decides he’ll find at a Sunday church service and social. His attention is quickly drawn to a woman in mourning cloth and to her slightly less subdued companion, whom he finds sobbing over a plate of pie outside after the service. She introduces herself as Ms. Nancy Kimble (Amy Matysio), and shares the sad tale of her employer Mrs. Virginia Tillford (Daniela Vlaskalic), who has held out hope for a decade that her husband will return from a trip to South America, where he vanished.
Jack is a man possessed of a quick wit, vivid imagination, and no small amount of sympathy—he manages to cheer Nancy up enough that she’s able to finish her pie and tell Virginia’s story. He then convinces her he might be able to lift the grieving widow’s spirits, and the two arrange for him to pay a call at her house the following day.
Jack and Nancy’s attempt to engage the reclusive and long-suffering Mrs. Tillford soon involves their creating a rollicking imaginary adventure to deepest, darkest South America, with Jack playing the wide assortment of oddball characters that the women encounter on this voyage. And it is Jack playing the characters (though it’s of course Pederson playing him)—it’s an odd and novel experience for the audience not to have suspend its disbelief to any greater extent than the actors on stage, except in terms of the living room location and the established characters. With only a few chairs, a record player, and a suitcase of costume changes that Jack has brought along, the three characters spend an afternoon in real-time make believe, and their play proves to be literally life-changing for them.
Pederson and Matysio are both experienced improvisors, with a slew of Canadian Comedy Award nominations and wins between them, and their expertise, exuberance, and passion for play are put to very good use here. Vlaskalic’s role is more difficult; completely erasing ten years of melancholy in an hour might leave an audience feeling cheated, and her slow change over the course of the “adventure” is handled sensitively. Virginia’s eventual willingness to commit to the fantasy helps her recognize that her grief can be channelled and controlled, especially with the help of others. The amount of pleasure you’ll get from this show as a member of the “real” audience will depend somewhat on how willing you are to let your imagination run wild with the trio on stage—if you’re game, that pleasure will be considerable.