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.