With Mending Fences, Canada’s most prolific playwright has raised his own standards from dependable-and-good to savvy-and-grand. The occasional slow spots and uneven pace of previous work have been purged in the early edits. We’re left with a show that makes two hours vanish even as its frequent doses of relationship truth have the crowd howling, squirming or tearing up while the fictional situations trigger factual memories. Theatre doesn’t get much better than that.
Theatre in Port wisely reunited Norm Foster with director Chris McHarge to put together this première production. With nine other plays brought to life over the years, it’s little wonder that this effort flows as smoothly as Russian vodka and Canadian beer drown the sorrows of Harry Sullivan (Foster) and his first wife, Lori (Heather Hodgson). Set in rural Saskatchewan, the risk and danger of living in isolation is brought home from curtain to curtain. But even those who live in well-populated areas will identify with the notion that it’s lack of communication rather than acres of empty real estate that can rip family units apart.
Until now, Foster acts in his own plays only after the initial production has run its course. In this work, with so many threads of autobiography woven into the fabric, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this part.
The six-pack before noon, (“Should you be driving?”; “Probably not.”) absentee father struggles with his pride both at work (now a janitor after mad cow disease wiped out his herd) and in bed (“I’ve had longer farts.”). Told through lower-the-lights flashbacks, we see Harry’s marriage disintegrate. Harry Jr. (Derek Ritschel-Drew), starved for affection and forced to play team sports, departs with his mom back to civilization (“32 hours away”) after her final straw (thrown by a horse, whose name “Nomad” seems just a bit too on-the-nose).
An Act II moment worth the price of admission alone is the mother/son scene where Foster’s “invisible” countenance speaks louder than the whole script about the hidden agony of family breakdowns. Marvellous.
Thirteen years later, Harry Jr. suddenly returns. Father and son haven’t had a word since the rupture. Harry Sr. is bedding his next-door neighbour, Gin (ironically short for Virginia, also played by Hodgson) whose husband committed suicide because of his own failure and “loving me too much.” Like a Mozart opera, Foster pens all manner of duets and trios—using every combination imaginable—to reveal character and back-story, providing many moments of tears-in-your-eyes laughs. In the manner of Brad Fraser, his snappy dialogue between protagonists (“Love ya.”; “Mean it.” Leaving Metropolis) becomes a ritornello between the two Harrys that is always enjoyable even in its predictability—bonding by epithet supreme. The only drawback to this device is the slight weakening of its impact when “Cat’s ass” shifts characters.
Having an aversion to teams, and especially hockey, Harry Jr. has become a golf pro and father. Unfortunately for him, his indiscreet conquest of the club president’s daughter on the back nine left him unemployed and confined to a permanent seat in the doghouse. What better time to visit another uncaring dad? Ritschel-Drew brings an engaging freshness and earnest desire-to-please to the role. As the performances continue he will, no doubt, (largely through the process of osmosis) deepen his inner pain with subtle gestures and looks that Foster’s experience summons up effortlessly in nearly every scene.
It falls to Hodgson to deliver the dramatic showstopper. Her near-manic rail against men (“They only know how to fight.”) allows her own frustrations to vent with passion and conviction that the majority of the stronger sex can only imagine. Prior to this explosion, the cautious widow is extolling the virtues of her seven-bean salad (not all of which was devoured at the union social). In the aftermath of her diatribe, the guilty Harrys demonstrate their peas-in-the-pod demeanour not through words but from a brilliant bit of finger business that, once again, lifts this show into the must-see category.
Those amongst us who revel in bathroom humour and bawdy banter won’t go away disappointed. From perky nipples, to “Want-to-see-my-driver?,” the etiquette of wearing a borrowed “cup,” Foster’s playful sense of naughty keeps the chuckles, winks and guffaws coming easily. Fortunately, those yuks, the abundance of sarcasm and moral inertia only serve to reinforce the tragedies that masquerade as people’s lives on and off stage.
By journey’s end, the metaphorical engine-in-the-bedroom is turning over and the back-forty fence is fixed, but the future hopes and happiness of the players must await the next installment from Foster’s ever-active imagination. JWR