Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mending Fences: a new first for B Street

Phil Comwan and Stephanie McVay
In its U.S. premier, “Mending Fences”– by Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific playwright–entertained, baffled and stimulated an opening night B Street audience that rose to its feet for a standing ovation. This is the fifth of Foster’s plays to visit what’s probably its most welcoming stage.

The setting is rural Saskatchewan in the Canadian West, which Foster sees as much like the American West, a place where masculine independence, pride and toughness are often carried to a fault. But that world view goes farther and existed long ago, at least as far back as Macbeth in Scotland, who said, “I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none.”

At the center is Harry Sullivan (Phil Cowan, who also play’s Harry’s father), caught between memories of his own philandering, steely father and his cold, distant son, Drew (Michael Navarra, who also plays Young Harry). Drew has suddenly arrived at Harry’s farmhouse after a 13-year estrangement. Harry is long divorced from Lori, Drew’s mother, and is the beer-swilling lover of Gin, widow of a man who hanged himself (Stephanie McVay plays Gin, Lori, and Harry’s mother).
The knife-like dialog, especially in the first act, mark Foster as a master craftsman. As the action progresses, more of the tangled past is revealed. Harry’s coldness, and the coldness of the cattle ranch, alienated Lori, taking young Drew with her to resume her teaching career. Harry dismissed them as if they didn’t exist. Much of Harry’s emotional numbness is a response to his own father’s philandering, which drove Lori to drink.

The play’s action revolves around the reaching out and suspicious resistance between Harry and Drew. Their mutual attraction draws them together as part of a team in a hockey game, where they end up fighting with each other. Ironically Drew’s hockey stick wounds Harry in the groin.
The barrenness of the land reflects the spiritual barrenness shared by father and son. BSE, popularly known as mad cow disease, has attacked local cattle, forcing Harry to shoot his entire herd, reducing him to clean shop floors at night for a living. In the end, thanks largely to heroic intervention by Gin, Harry and Drew, chips off the same block, achieve reconciliation. And Harry can finally express love.

Under Elisabeth Nunziato’s finely tuned direction, a well-chosen cast brings out the complex nuances marking the relationships among the characters. The flaws in the play rise not from any clumsiness of the playwright. Rather they come from Foster’s overreaching. When a cast of three play so many roles, including their own parents and children, it’s difficult to follow what’s going on.

In Act One Scene 4 we get this stage direction: “Lori has not left the stage. She is now Gin.” This transformation, though, is invisible to the audience. Foster seems to be trying to concretize the close bonds of identity that may be in the minds of the characters, particularly Harry’s mind. The problem is that we can be reduced to confusion. On the other hand, the hoped-for effect would be lost if there was a clear distinction among the identities.

“Mending Fences” continues through March 1 at 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field. Performances are Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 6:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22-$30 with student and senior discounts available. Call (916) 443-5300.

“Mending Fences” contains adult language and content and is recommended for audiences 16 years and older.
This review has appeared previously in the newspaper Village Life (El Dorado Hills, CA). For more information, click the title of this post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about seeing this show but your description satisfied my curiosity. Not sure who won the fight but I know Harry takes a hockey stick to the groin. No offense but this reads more like the Reader's Digest version of Mending Fences than a review.