At one point in Stopheart, the final show of Factory Theatre’s current season, we hear an excerpt from the 1968 Bobby Goldsboro hit Honey. It turns out to be depressingly appropriate. As it happens, Amy Lee Lavoie’s new play is just as mawkish and nauseating as that syrupy old ballad about a man fondly remembering his dead wife.
Lavoie’s awkward black comedy-cum-drama focuses on a sexually conflicted youth coping with eccentric parents and small-town ennui in South Porcupine, Ont. The young playwright herself is a native of that Timmins suburb, but if there’s even a moment in her play that rings true, then I must have been deaf to it. This is a work full of strained comic patter, big fake emotions and queasy sentimentality. Not to mention many overwrought lyrical passages, which come straight out of Canadian Playwriting 101.
Lavoie isn’t entirely to blame, however. The production, directed by the usually reliable Ron Jenkins, features acting that runs from flat to cringe-worthy. Still, the real problem at the heart of Stopheart is its falseness. There’s little doubt about Lavoie’s sincerity; to continue the cardiac metaphor, she constantly wears her heart on her sleeve. But her characters are so poorly developed that we never believe them. We know what we’re supposed to think – that they’re endearingly quirky, or troubled, or tragic – but all we see is a playwright trying, and failing, to pull our strings.
Elian (Amitai Marmorstein) ought to be a young guy we can feel for. He’s stuck in South Porcupine, working as a stock boy at the Freshie Mart to help out his cash-strapped family. At home, he has to deal with his crazy mom, Goldie (Elizabeth Saunders), who has a heart murmur and, convinced of her imminent demise, is happily consumed with planning her own funeral. His dad, Cricket (Martin Julien), is no better. A laconic carpenter who idolizes John Wayne, he fondly caters to his wife’s morbid whims. He has not only built her a glitzy, neon-lit coffin, he also helps rehearse her deathbed scene, complete with Goldsboro tape.
To escape all this cheery death-obsession, Elian hangs with fellow Freshie employee July (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), a chunky, wisecracking teen who acts as his girlfriend while he tries to figure out his sexual orientation. That becomes pretty obvious, though, when July’s older brother Bear (Garret C. Smith) is released from prison on parole. The moment Elian claps eyes on this moody First Nations hunk, he feels a powerful attraction. And he foolishly fails to heed July’s warnings that Bear is dangerous.
Certainly, being gay in a small town can be difficult, even tragic, but there’s something cheap about the way Lavoie uses it here to torque up the drama. It’s just one of many miscalculations. The efforts to show a touching love between Elian and his mother are by turns inane and creepy. And when Goldie and her hubby Cricket get randy in her coffin (to the accompaniment of more icky music – Charlie Rich’s Behind Closed Doors), it isn’t cute, just embarrassing.
Some of the performances are aggressively wrong-headed. Saunders’s twinkling Goldie, who resembles a middle-aged, maternal Ophelia, is meant to be sweetly mad but is instead repellently weird. Endicott-Douglas’s July, a spunky/sad girl who we’re supposed to pity, gets steadily more annoying. Wedged uncomfortably between childhood and womanhood, she struts about in a Supergirl costume and “smokes” candy cigarettes. She’s given heaps of glib dialogue and garbles a lot of it.
At least Marmorstein’s Elian has a Demetri Martin-type nebbish appeal, but his angst never wins our sympathy. (You keep wondering why he doesn’t just hop a bus to Toronto.) Julien turns Cricket into a creaky cowboy caricature. Smith probably comes off best in the smallest role. His enigmatic Bear is nothing more than a convenient stereotype to serve the play’s plot, but he embodies it satisfactorily.
The Edmonton-based Jenkins, who can be a fine director (as he showed Toronto audiences with the touring hits Bash’d and The Black Rider), seems to have been defeated by the script. His staging resorts to the same corny clichés as Lavoie’s writing.
I have no desire to see a young playwright fail, especially on the mainstage of a major theatre that has been through rough times lately. As I watched Lavoie’s play, I kept wishing it would get better, that all the false emotion would finally be replaced by the real thing. Instead, my hopes sank with each passing scene. Stopheart is a heartbreaker, but not in the way that it intends to be.
Stopheart runs to May 26.