Almost a decade after Canadian audiences were first introduced to her, Helen still hasn't found what she's looking for.
The main character in Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette's Helen's Necklace has lost the titular piece of jewelry somewhere in the bustling streets of a war-stained and unnamed city in the Middle East. It's just an inexpensive, flimsy trinket with tiny, white plastic pearls, but it sat around the visitor's neck like a little “white cloud.”
Now, with her head out of that cloud, Helen feels disoriented and unprotected and sets off in desperate, almost panicked search for the missing talisman.
How many new plays get unfairly brushed aside due to misguided initial productions? I pondered this as I watched Micheline Chevrier's off-key revival of this delicate two-hander in the Studio at the Shaw Festival.
In its initial English-language production at the Tarragon Theatre, Fréchette's play seemed like a string of pearls of wisdom. This time around, it comes across as cheap and ersatz, weighed down only by worthiness.
Helen, as she seeks out her necklace with a taxi driver named Nabil, encounters a number of locals who have seemingly more serious losses to contend with: A construction foreman who watched as his house was turned into rubble by bombs; a woman looking for a bright red ball (and the son who used to play with it); and a refugee who, living in a purgatorial camp all his life, is himself misplaced.
While it's easy to write Helen off as a self-involved Westerner, Fréchette's play only really works if you believe in the importance of the lost necklace to her – or, at least, her sense of loss.
Here, it only ever seems a heavy-handed metaphor, as Tara Rosling gives a performance as Helen that is difficult to connect with. Rosling carries herself with a certain society-lady snootiness, waving her hand around her unadorned neck like a pretentious ballet mistress.
She's aloof and excessively affected, in short, and the core effect of this is to turn the play into a mere education in empathy for Helen – and, by proxy, the audience. When she turns to us and says the play's refrain, “We cannot go on living like this,” it grates.
But Fréchette isn't accusing the audience of not caring about the troubles of tumultous countries far away from our snowy, mostly peaceful one.
Without being judgmental about it, she's exploring the way small close things can devastate us on an emotional level, while big distant things may concern us but don't resonate in the same way – and telling us that expressed outrage is more useful than feeling sorry or guilty.
Sanjay Talwar plays the taxi driver Nabil, as well as all the other locals Helen encounters on her urban odyssey. He's strong as the dismissive construction worker who has no time for women who come to his city to cry over the past, but there's a nebulousness to his other portrayals. (The strange images of him in costume projected on the back wall don't help, but hinder our ability to imagine him as these characters.)
Talwar was also in the original English-language production at the Tarragon Theatre nine years ago, directed by Eda Holmes. His return here means that comparisons are inevitable; particularly missed is actor Susan Coyne's wounded, intelligent and intensely sympathetic Helen.
Compared to the intimate staging at the Tarragon, Judith Bowden's wide open set – a graffiti-covered wall and a few chain-link pillars – doesn't doesn't do the production any favours. Chevrier keeps her actors penned in a small square at the centre of the stage, the resulting impression being that we're not in a chaotic, cramped city, but adrift in an abandoned, deserted wasteland.
The positive lesson I'd take away from this: Don't write off a script because of its production. A play can slip through a director's fingers very easily.