I’m aiming to be caught up on reviews or at least quick mentions by the start of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (August 14-24, 2014), because that’s the start of my personal theatregoing year, and the anniversary of my move to Edmonton. This year at the Fringe, besides volunteering at the beer tent, volunteering front of house for a Rapid Fire production or two, and seeing as many shows as I can fit into my schedule, I’m also going to be producing a new work. Sonder, created and performed by The ? Collective under the direction of Jake Tkaczyk (a U of A BFA Acting student), will be playing at the King Edward Elementary School.
The most recent play I’ve attended was Norm Foster’s charming slice of 1950s family life, Hilda’s Yard, as directed by Stephen Heatley (formerly of Edmonton and now faculty at UBC) at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, Saskatchewan. As a professional production by a summer company, it reminded me of the plays I used to go to at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque when I lived in Kingston. I hear that doing the dinner/show package at the Tea Room in the arts centre is an even better experience, but by the time I decided to attend the dinner was sold out. So I had a tasty club sandwich at a local restaurant called Chewie’s (after the Star Wars character I think), and then enjoyed strolling through the art gallery before the show started.
Hilda’s Yard opens with the title character (Cheryl Jack) hanging laundry in her backyard, while talking to a neighbour we can’t see. We learn that she’s relieved that her two grown children have recently moved out, and that she’s a little apprehensive about her husband planning to buy their first television set. I thought Hilda’s character was the most interesting part of the play. Cheryl Jack portrayed her as confident, competent, wistful, and mostly in control, and her portrayal was enhanced by some very amusing gestures and hip wiggles. I was pleased to see that she and her husband Sam (Bruce McKay) were both looking forward to the increased opportunities for intimacy afforded by having an empty nest, rather than playing that situation for the cheap laughs of imbalance. The complication, of course, is that both adult children soon return home, for the same kinds of reasons that are common in 21st-century boomerang kids. Gary (Jaron Francis) has lost his pizza-delivery job in the city and is on the run from a bookie he owes money to. Sam’s prolonged pauses as he tries to figure out what to say to his son are priceless. Daughter Janey (Angela Kemp) shows up back home due to marital troubles. I’d seen both Jaron Francis and Bruce McKay in last season’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan productions of Macbeth and Comedy of Errors.
When I read the show notes ahead of time, I assumed that the plot would focus on Gary and Janey now insisting on staying with their parents in order to watch the television. But Norm Foster’s stories are not quite that predictable. Although the (off-stage) television figures in the plot, it doesn’t quite work out like that. Additional characters who show up and get invited for supper include Gary’s new girlfriend Bobbi, a jazz trombonist (Shannon Harasen) and Gary’s bookie Beverly (Matt Josdal). Bobbi’s idiolect is noticeably different from the language used by the rest of the characters, with jazz lingo like “cat” but also in careful details like her pronunciation of “Mom” contrasting with Janey’s old-Ontario pronunciation of “Mum”. Present-day audiences are amused by any mention of the 1956 prices and wages, but also by Gary’s unrealistic schemes to make money with such unlikely products as a “baby-on-board” sign or a hula hoop. I appreciated the light touch by director and actors throughout the play, because the story is funny enough without hitting the audience over the head.
The set (design by David Granger) portrayed a backyard like the ones of my childhood with simple clean lines – an artificial-turf lawn, a wooden-siding wall, a white picket fence with bits of weed growing between the pickets, a perfectly-recreated pulley clothesline and a wicker laundry basket, vintage lawn chairs and a credibly-dented metal garbage can.
Hilda’s Yard continues until July 27th, and is definitely worth the short drive from Saskatoon.