Tag Archives: beth graham

Another family at a cusp, in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble

Beth Graham’s play The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, directed by Bradley Moss at Theatre Network, explores a familiar family crisis time with some refreshing new thoughts.  In my adult acting classes, we’ve studied scenes from Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge and from The Attic, The Pearls, and Three Fine Girls by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, both of which are stories about adult children who return to the family home when a parent is dying.  I’ve been through similar experiences, twice, so I can understand why such crisis times work well for a playwright, with all the characters having old baggage and resentments with each other, all stuck in a current high-stakes situation.  And because I remember what it was like sharing our childhood home with my siblings while we spent our days at the hospital and our evenings scanning through Mum’s television channels and filling up her fridge with fast-food leftovers while the neighbours’ casseroles went uneaten, stories of interesting characters going through similar struggles resonate and appeal to me.

The first exciting difference about Bernice Trimble was that the widowed mother, Bernice (Susan Gilmour, recently seen in Drowsy Chaperone and in Spamalot), was a character on stage, rather than an invalid in an offstage bedroom.  She turns out to be a fascinating character too, honest and determined and accepting of each of her children’s differences.   Having the mother on stage interacting with her children made this a rich fascinating story of earlier stages of illness and aging than the stories I alluded to in the first paragraph.  It also helped to illustrate the title.  “Gravitational pull” is the playwright’s expression for how, for better or for worse, an extended family is often drawn together by one specific person (maybe a parent or grandparent).  Astronomical metaphors were used throughout the narrative but not in a contrived way.

The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Iris, the middle child (Clarice Eckford) on whom Bernice depends for the most difficult requests.  The narrative jumps back and forth between one later important day and a series of scenes of family members interacting over several months.  Iris frequently addresses the audience, narrating what happens between the scenes from her point of view.  The set represents both Iris’s kitchen and their mother’s.  It is generally clear which location is being presented, even without narrator Iris’s clue of setting out salt and pepper shakers every time the set is her mother’s house.   Many family traditions and customs are referred to and repeated, from Bernice’s habits of embracing her children and her endearments for them, to the rituals of family meeting and  making a classic 1960s-style casserole.  As Iris tells the story, she often uses the expression “That was that … only it wasn’t” as a transition.

The other two siblings, older sister Sarah (Patricia Zentilli) and younger brother Peter (Jason Chinn), respond to the mother’s announcement that she has Alzheimer’s disease in their own fashions, Sarah with denial and plans for second opinions and treatments, and Peter with awkward taciturn acceptance.  Sarah and Iris are also caught up by disputing who is “last to know” important family business, another familiar touch.  I thought that Peter’s small role was presented effectively and with sympathy by the playwright and the actor, because his quiet avoidance and flashes of kindness could so easily have been overplayed into humour, and they were not.

The audience gets only a single disturbing glimpse of the progression of Bernice’s illness before she enlist’s Iris’s commitment to be accessory to her suicide.  And Iris, the one who might appear least successful or least mature by some of her family ‘s measures (chatty and scattered, still single, no children, working as a temp) is the one who accepts and supports her mother’s right to make that choice, despite the pain it causes her.

I found it emotionally evocative and not manipulative, a believable portrait of a family and an illness.  The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble continues at Theatre Network until November 23rd, with tickets available here.

A dream within a dream: Nevermore

The Westbury Theatre was sold out.  The Arts Barns lobby was filled with a queue folding back on itself like a pack of ramen noodles.  Lots of familiar faces from the Edmonton theatre scene and lots of twitter buzz reinforced what I’d heard: the opening night of the new Catalyst Theatre production of Jonathan Christenson’s Nevermore was a big deal.

Nevermore recounts the life story of Edgar Allan Poe, the American nineteenth-century writer of the creepy and suspenseful.  Compared to The Soul Collector,  a Christenson / Catalyst production I saw last spring, the narrative of Nevermore is direct and almost completely linear.  But it’s still a supremely weird show, set in a world where nothing is normal.  (Nothing is right-angled either!)  It was also interesting to view this show recalling Emily Winter’s portrayal of Poe in last summer’s Fringe hit Poe and Mathews.

Most of the story is told by one of the narrators speaking directly to the audience in rhyme, while the characters in that part of the story interact physically and sing together.  This works better than you might expect, conveying a literary and distanced mood but showing the affection and awkwardness among the flawed individual characters.

Scott Shpeley plays Edgar, from about age 8 to his death at 40.  He does the whole show in the same odd black and white costume and makeup, but his motions and postures show obvious changes from child to adolescent and young man to older man.   His appealing clear tenor voice works well for the character at all ages.   As a child, he frequently looked small, fearful, and pitiable, trembling all over.  In one of the glimpses of happiness, when he falls in love with his young cousin (Beth Graham), his face is illuminated by joy.  And in one of the moments of anguish he lifts a tear-streaked face to the audience.

The other six actors in the ensemble play several parts each, with various additions to hair or costume.  Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin are Edgar’s ill-fated parents (with the portrayal of his moody actress mother being especially poignant), and Gaelan Beatty and Beth Graham his siblings.  Ryan Parker’s characters include a Paul-Lynde-ish portrayal of the biographer Rufus Griswold.  Shannon Blanchet was Elvira Royster, a character seen as a teenager and again as a widow.  One of the best portrayals was Beth Graham as Fanny Allan, Edgar’s foster mother, trying to win over the orphaned boy despite her surly merchant husband (Garett Ross) and struggling with despair.

The visual designs for this production were fascinating and spare, consistent with what I understand of the Catalyst Theatre aesthetic.  Bretta Gerecke is credited as scenographer and resident designer for the company.  I was intrigued and then captivated.  All the costumes are black and white, twisted impressions of nineteenth century dress.  Black boots are made noticeable with white accents.  Rigid wires hint at hoop skirts and frock coats.  Harsh monochrome lights turn costume elements reddish or bluish.  Hats and hairdos are odd and extreme, from punkish spikes to one of the women’s updos looking very much like a stalk of Brussels sprouts.   Human and non-human characters with long mis-shapen claw-hands reminded me of similar imagery in The Soul Collector.   I loved the rhomboid oversized notebooks and asymmetric undersized trunks.   Many characters adopted odd hand and body positions like twisted sculptures.

Nevermore is playing at the Westbury Theatre until the afternoon of Sunday March 2nd.  If you like going to weird theatre, unconventional musicals, or shows that everyone in Edmonton will be referring to for years, then you should make time in your schedule for this.  You can get tickets at Tix on the Square.  There are also some $10 youth tickets available at the door for each performance.