The Scary Truth About Tom at the Farm
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The Scary Truth About Tom at the Farm

At Buddies in Bad Times, Michel Marc Bouchard’s original play proves to be darker—and funnier—than the Xavier Dolan film.

Jeff Lillico (left) as Tom and Jeff Irving as Francis in a scene from Tom at the Farm at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre  Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

Jeff Lillico (left) as Tom and Jeff Irving as Francis in a scene from Tom at the Farm at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Tom at the Farm
Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander Street)
Runs to May 10
$27-$37 (Rush tickets $20)
4 Stars

If, like most of us living outside Quebec, you’ve only seen Xavier Dolan’s film version of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom à la ferme, then you’re in for a treat at Buddies in Bad Times. The theatre’s riveting English-language production, Tom at the Farm, reveals Bouchard’s play to be darker, richer, creepier, more violent, and a great deal funnier than the movie.

First presented in 2011 at Montreal’s Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, Bouchard’s psycho-thriller was originally slated to have its English premiere (under the title Tom and the Coyote) at Factory Theatre in 2012. Instead, it became one of the casualties in the fallout over the firing of artistic director Ken Gass, with Bouchard joining fellow playwrights Judith Thompson and George F. Walker and withdrawing his work from the Factory season in protest.

It turns out to have been a fortunate move, at least as far as Buddies is concerned. A year later, Dolan’s film made its debut to widespread acclaim and upped the play’s profile considerably. Now we come to Eda Holmes’s stage production, curious to see how the two compare. And it turns out that, while the film does offer gorgeous cinematography—and the gorgeous Dolan himself, blond and moody in the title role—the play has a complexity only hinted at onscreen.

Tom (played by the perpetually boyish Jeff Lillico, on leave from Soulpepper) is a young gay man from Montreal who has driven deep into the countryside to attend the funeral of his late lover and meet his next of kin. Arriving at the family’s dairy farm, he’s shocked to discover that his lover’s widowed mother, Agathe (Rosemary Dunsmore), has no idea who he is and believes her son was straight. In fact, she’s convinced he had a girlfriend in the city named Natalie and is angry she hasn’t shown up. It soon becomes clear that Agathe’s other son, the live-at-home Francis (Jeff Irving), has been carefully cultivating this ruse. An intimidating brute, he threatens Tom into playing along.

At first, Tom rebels against this rural homophobia and wants to tell Agathe the truth, but Francis finds a vicious means of coercing him—binding his wrists with rope and dragging him through the dirt. This ought to be Tom’s cue to escape while he’s still in one piece, but instead he remains at the farm. Dazed with grief, he’s drawn into a masochistic relationship with Francis that mirrors Francis’s twisted bond with his dead brother. Tom finds himself helping to milk the cows, ecstatically assisting at the birth of a calf, and willingly submitting to Francis’s favourite form of torture—hanging him upside down over a stinking pit of cow carcasses where coyotes come to feed.

This is the strange state Sara (Christine Horne) finds Tom in when she arrives from Montreal. A colleague of Tom and his lover at the ad agency where they all worked, she’s come at Tom’s behest to mollify Agathe by playing the role of Natalie. Unfortunately, it’s a part she’s ill-equipped for. Francis has told Agathe that Natalie is a chain-smoking Francophone, whereas Sara doesn’t smoke and can spout only a handful of badly pronounced French phrases. Her awkward meeting with Agathe is hilarious, which is quite a surprise given that the few moments of humour in Dolan’s film are low-key.

What’s not surprising is that Dolan, with his visual flair, chose to show rather than tell Tom’s feelings. But Bouchard, a thoroughly literary dramatist, has Tom speaking interior monologues between the dialogue that impart much more information about the character and his circumstances. The play also gives us a stronger picture of Agathe, a befuddled but colourful woman who obsessively reads the Bible and conflates her son’s death and Tom’s appearance at the farm with the tales of Christ’s resurrection.

Sadomasochism is nothing new from Bouchard, who first became known for his 1987 homoerotic drama Les Feluettes—also filmed, by John Greyson, as Lilies—and he’s less discreet about it than Dolan. Unlike the movie, we actually see Tom suspended by his heels above the charnel pit, and the descriptions of violence are disturbingly graphic. But the most intense—and erotic—scene in Holmes’s staging is a comparatively subtle one: a face-to-face confrontation between Francis and Tom while Francis is ironing clothes. As you watch them in this intimate moment you can’t keep your eyes off the steam iron that the sadistic Francis happens to be holding in his hand.

Irving’s Francis, tall and hairy-chested, with a redneck accent, is by turns frightening and laughable as well as, ultimately, pitiful. You can see where Tom would be attracted to him as rural rough trade (his lover was a bad boy, too), but Francis is also Bouchard’s take on those ignorant young men whose intolerant upbringing is at odds with their sexual impulses and whose suppressed feelings have been warped into a virulent homophobia. Ironically, Francis has become a pariah in the community that bred him and the horrifying reason for his ostracism is the secret at the heart of the play.

Lillico’s Tom, in contrast, is slight, sensitive, urbane—a well-dressed bundle of nerves. Lillico makes him funny but vulnerable, an emotionally fragile outsider who becomes entangled in an abusive relationship without realizing it. When Horne’s inept Sara arrives, looking like she’s dressed for clubbing, not grieving, she’s there for delightful comic relief, but also to provide a reality check for Tom.

Agathe, shortchanged by the film, more than gets her due in Dunsmore’s superb performance. Looking worn-down and washed out, her aging farm widow seems to exist in a continuous state of bewilderment, whether it’s over Natalie’s curious behaviour or the enduring popularity of pasta salad. Yet she’s not entirely out of the loop, and Dunsmore shows us glimpses of a woman whose ignorance is partly willful and a means of coping with the ugly realities surrounding her.

Speaking of film comparisons, you could describe Holmes’s direction as Alfred Hitchcock meets Derek Jarman. The design, meanwhile, is bucolic meets Gothic. Camellia Koo—playing a variation on her gravel-strewn set for last season’s The Wanderers—covers the upper end of the Buddies stage with a hill of soil, flanked by the farmhouse’s skeletal walls. Rebecca Picherack’s lighting is by turns gentle and sinister, while John Gzowski’s insidious sound design ranges from the near-subliminal to the jangly and jarring.

Anyone who knows Bouchard’s past work will recognize the elements here: religion, role-playing, S&M, quirky backwoods families. But if Tom at the Farm ploughs some familiar fields, it does so in fresh and startling ways that will linger with you long after the play’s gruesome but fitting denouement.