The House of Cards star is reliably appealing, but even she can’t save this misconceived production of a hit British play.
Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East)
Runs to March 22
A few years ago, between her role as Alma Garret on HBO’s Deadwood and her current gig as Jacqueline Sharp on Netflix’s House of Cards, L.A.-based Canadian actress Molly Parker came back to Toronto to co-star in a film called Trigger. The movie, an intimate and beautifully acted drama about the reunion of two middle-aged punk-rockers, was written by playwright Daniel MacIvor specifically for Parker and the late Tracy Wright. It would have been terrific, for her current return to T.O. in what is only her second professional theatre appearance, if Parker had been given another such vehicle tailored for her by her old friend and colleague MacIvor (Twitch City, Marion Bridge). Certainly, he would have come up with something less ill-fitting than Harper Regan, the show Parker is headlining at Canadian Stage.
Harper Regan, by U.K. playwright Simon Stephens (best known for adapting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), is a very British drama in which Parker plays a 41-year-old Uxbridge woman who abruptly leaves her husband and daughter to return to Manchester and see her dying father. First produced in London by the National Theatre in 2008, this is a play steeped in a suburban middle-class British milieu, full of northern English references and colloquialisms. Yet Parker, disconcertingly, plays the character with a Canadian accent and mannerisms, as do the six other cast members—more or less. It’s just one more layer of alienation added to director Matthew Jocelyn’s already deliberately alienating production.
It’s a strange approach, given that, one or two twists aside, this is a fairly conventional midlife-crisis drama that audiences ought to easily identify with—at its best, it’s like something the great Mike Leigh might have written on an off-day. Harper, her family’s sole breadwinner, is refused a leave of absence by her callous boss (Hardee T. Lineham, behaving like a modern-day Scrooge). Imperiling her job, she takes off to Stockport, outside Manchester, without telling her unemployed husband (Alex Poch-Goldin) or teenage daughter (Vivien Endicott-Douglas). In the course of a two-day series of revelations, she confronts her remarried and estranged mother, is forced to re-examine her idealized image of her schoolteacher dad, dabbles in sex and violence, and steals an obnoxious bloke’s black leather jacket. And the revelations aren’t just one-sided—we also come to learn about her husband’s alleged pedophilia, which has shaped the family’s destiny, and about Harper’s own seeming predilection for stalking.
Along the way, Stephens raises some valid points about public morality versus private sexuality, the illusions we hold onto to sustain us, and how impossible it is to really know even the people closest to us. At other times, though, the writing is lumpy and awkward, and the playwright likes to use his characters as mouthpieces for trite observations about life.
Jocelyn ponders the play’s Greek-tragedy inspirations in his program notes and his staging seems to aim at some anonymous universality that is at odds with the script itself. As he did to the Berkeley Street Theatre in 2013 for his production of THIS, he has stripped down the Bluma Appel stage, turning it into a dark, empty cavern. At the same time, in a gesture at the play’s intimate nature, he’s added a thrust stage to bring scenes forward. (Incidentally, if the Bluma is going to lose rows of orchestra seats to accommodate a thrust, why not lose a few more and give its audience members some decent leg-room?) The props are minimal and there’s little attempt at illusion. When not performing, the actors sit upstage on coloured plastic chairs, cloaked in semi-darkness. Michael Walton’s lighting is all about deep shadows. Scene changes are punctuated by screeching blasts of industrial music (sound design by the ubiquitous Thomas Ryder Payne)—a shock tactic that recalls the opening of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games and, indeed, Jocelyn’s own avant-garde European sensibilities, which in other respects have made Canadian Stage such an interesting company since he took charge.
This time, however, they’re at odds with the material. You can’t help but compare this production unfavourably with Canadian Stage’s superb version last season of another National Theatre show, London Road. That musicalized documentary about a serial killer, directed by Jackie Maxwell, carefully recreated the narrow bourgeois-British world that gave it context. The ways in which its story might resonate with our society were left to the audience to decide.
I’m sure Stephens didn’t intend us to be jarred half the time by his characters, which are familiar in the right context, but often seem unduly weird when played as if they were Canadians. Take that aforementioned obnoxious bloke, a coke-snorting, crotch-grabbing, anti-Semitic sleaze-bag journalist, who could have tumbled from the pages of an Irvine Welsh novel. Although played with flair by Philip Riccio—whom you know could do an even better job with the right Mancunian accent—he comes across as some bizarre Canadian sociopath rather than as a fairly common species of British pub scum.
Lineham and Lynne Griffin, as Harper’s mother, fare better in part because they can’t quite shake their instincts to be English regardless of the director’s instructions. But the two younger actors—Endicott-Douglas as Harper’s resentful daughter and a chipper nurse; Izaak Smith as a shy Jewish teen and a brain-damaged Arab labourer—give poorly guided performances that threaten to lapse into cartoons. Only Poch-Goldin is fully effective, perhaps because his roles—Harper’s gentle husband and a taciturn Internet date—have comparatively little dialogue, and when they do speak extensively, as in the husband’s poignant final monologue, they get the best of Stephens’s efforts.
And what of Molly Parker? She acquits herself well under the circumstances. The risk with actors who have spent most of their careers performing for film and TV cameras is that their subtlety and nuance will be lost onstage. And you immediately begin to suspect that’s the case in Parker’s subdued early scenes— but it turns out to be an acting choice. She begins by making Harper a weak, colourless figure, overwhelmed by her bullying boss, unable to deal with her moody daughter. She’s an unhappy woman ripe to take control of her life.
In the second act, when Harper finally goes rogue, Parker injects the character with some of the boldness (and the sexiness) of her fiercely ambitious Jackie Sharp. With her sense of freedom comes a glowing candour that radiates her later scenes, like sun rays piercing the black cloud of secrecy and shame that has hung over Harper and her family. You only wish Parker could actually disappear inside the woman in Stephens’s drama, assume her accent and dialect, and then we might actually get into the play, too, and not just watch it feeling alternately detached and discombobulated.
This is Parker’s first play since a 1996 production of The Passion of Dracula at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. Now that she’s tasted the theatre again, it would be a good time to hit up MacIvor for a proper Molly Parker stage vehicle. He’s easy to find—his latest show, Cake and Dirt, opens this Wednesday at the Tarragon.