The new play is loaded with well-crafted characters who could be anyone’s mother, grandmother, or friend—which is why it’s so hard exploring the most damaged parts of their psyches.
The Happy Woman, which debuted last week at the Berkeley Street Theatre, is as hard to stomach as it is easy to relate to.
The new play, Nightwood Theatre’s latest production, is loaded with strong, well-crafted characters who could be anyone’s mother, grandmother, or friend—which is why it’s so hard watching two hours of exploration into the most damaged parts of their psyches.
Soon after it begins, it becomes clear the audience is in for an intense ride. Margaret, the family matriarch, is preparing for a dinner with her grown children, singing their praises to her watchful neighbour, BellaDonna. As she paints a picture coloured by motherly pride, the caustic neighbour’s retorts indicate Margaret may have a case of the rose-coloured glasses.
And so she does. Margaret, played by Barbara Gordon, is the widowed matriarch of adult children Cassie and Christian. Caught somewhere between eternal optimism and deep delusion, Margaret seems constantly pleased, having learned to ignore the obvious problems around her. She’s worked hard at being normal her whole life, she tells us, giving some insight into her tendency to remember her less-than-ideal husband as a caring family man.
Cassie, damaged by a long-held family secret that no one else seems willing to acknowledge, is an angst-ridden boozer who concocts bizarre naked performance art pieces as outlets for her grief. Margaret’s refusal to see things for what they are further instigates Cassie’s madness as she searches for ways to deal with an experience her family would rather forget.
Playwright Rose Cullis and actor Maev Beaty have done a number on Cassie: she’s funny, brash, and attention-seeking—the type of woman who draws strong reactions. Waffling between a desire for honesty and drive to mask her pain, she rails against everyone, including herself, in a way so realistic it’s cringe-worthy.
The other standout character is Christian’s fragile, pregnant wife Stasia, played by Ingrid Rae Doucet. It’s heartbreaking to watch her drive herself crazy as she imagines horrible things happening to her unborn child, but her irrational fears are distressingly easy to relate to for anyone who’s had hormone-related mood swings—or anyone who has had to deal with someone in that state.
Each character’s tendencies are heightened by their respective wardrobes, colour-coded throughout the play: Margaret stays ever cheerful in bright yellow; Cassie plays the vixen in red; BellaDonna is green; and gentle Stasia is clad in pink. The outfits are tied together by a bright set that centres around the family kitchen and a 1960s-style dinette.
The play focuses much more on its characters’ pain than concluding the narrative it presents, and left us wishing for a bit more payoff after such an intense two hours. But it also asks some important questions. Will telling people what we think they want to hear keep them happy? And most of all, at what cost are we willing to lie to ourselves?