Playwright-mathematician John Mighton’s The Little Years recalls the famous motto of the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
In Mighton’s sad, sourly comic play, now at Tarragon Theatre, the mind in question belongs to Kate, a gifted, misfit teenager whose misfortune is to be a girl in the 1950s, an era when young ladies were supposed to aspire to marriage and motherhood, not try to solve the riddles of the universe.
At 14, Kate (a charmingly geeky Bethany Jillard) displays a passion for physics and a bent for outside-the-box thinking that today, astute parents and teachers would eagerly cultivate. Instead, her widowed mother Alice (Chick Reid) is merely confused by her oddball daughter, and a chauvinist principal (Victor Ertmanis) recommends that Kate be shunted off to a vocational school. To add insult to injury, Kate’s brother William – unseen in the play, but much talked about – is a budding poet whose own talent has been lavishly awarded and praised.
Kate’s subsequent tragic decline, traced over the decades, hammers home Mighton’s point that, without encouragement, even the brightest minds will fade. But if The Little Years, first produced in 1995, contains some of the ideas that Mighton, as an educator, has since expressed in books like The Myth of Ability, it isn’t entirely didactic. Mighton’s own interest in physics also informs and enriches the piece, which becomes a meditation on the deceptive nature of time. And his rewritten version, making its Toronto debut at Tarragon following its successful premiere at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last year, expands on that temporal theme.
Now, the play deals more fully with its other characters, showing how they, like Kate, are also victims of the vagaries of time. Roger (Ari Cohen), a fashionable artist friend of William’s, is praised in the 1970s – and then scorned in the 1990s – as the Barry Manilow of the art world. William himself enjoys a lifetime of lionization and yet there are suggestions his fame will scarcely outlast his death. The only steadfast figure is Grace (Pamela Sinha), William’s environmental-activist wife, who is touchingly persistent in her efforts to reach out to Kate.
Tarragon’s production is a partial remount of the Stratford show. The Tarragon mainspace has been reconfigured to resemble the festival’s Studio Theatre, director Chris Abraham recreates his elegant staging and Irene Poole repeats her heart-wrenching performance as the adult Kate. Executing a slow, distressing spiral, Poole embodies the erstwhile wunderkind first as an angry, cynical young woman, then later as a dull psychiatric patient described as catatonic and treated with electroshock therapy. Comparisons with Frances Farmer, the unruly 1930s Hollywood actress who was institutionalized and allegedly lobotomized, come to mind.
Sinha plays gentle Grace with a warm glow, while Cohen’s Roger has the stride of self-confident mediocrity and, later, a shuffling self-awareness of his limitations. Like Poole, they do a superb job of aging. So does Reid, reprising her role as a brittle Alice, whose perpetual cluelessness has a sadly fitting culmination in dementia.
The play still has its flaws. Mighton can’t resist putting his own opinions of psychiatry and the education system into his characters’ mouths. And Kate’s utter self-defeat comes too soon and isn’t wholly convincing. But at least he’s merciful to her in the end. “I had so much to give,” she says at one point, in a rare cri de coeur. As we later discover, she has in fact given inspiration, via her youthful diaries, to her niece (also played by Jillard), a math whiz who idolizes her. Time may be on Kate’s side after all.
The Little Years runs until Dec. 16.