Melissa James Gibson was born in Ottawa, raised in Vancouver as the daughter of a British Columbia politician, found an education, a family and professional success in New York, and now her work is finding its way back to her homeland. And if she ever felt caught in a sort of identity limbo because of her dual citizenship, she magnifies it tenfold in the characters of This, who are confused by a whole array of major personal issues, let alone nationalistic ones.
This, currently playing in Toronto with Canadian Stage after making its Canadian debut in Vancouver in 2011, puts a refreshing spin on a not unheard-of story of thirtysomethings fumbling through midlife crises. Jane (Laura Condlln) is 38-year-old poet, insofar as one can call oneself a poet after publishing one book 15 years ago, and the mother of nine-year-old Maude. We meet her one year after the death of her husband Roy, at a dinner party hosted by her best friends, new parents Marrell (Yanna McIntosh) and Tom (Jonathon Young), and their perpetually single friend Alan (Alon Nashman), a Jewish gay man and alcoholic who makes a living off TV appearances with his supernaturally precise memory. Really, you can’t blame him for taking up the sauce.
Thrown into the mix is Jean-Pierre (Christian Laurin), a French Doctor Without Borders whom Marrell has set up with Jane, if only because, in her words, he “should not go unslept with.” His presence has an unexpected effect on Tom, who visits Jane at her apartment the next day, confesses his attraction to her, and in a moment of impulse, the one going unslept with is his wife.
This is a group of intellectual artistic types that turn every innocent encounter – a parlour game, going for ice cream, an evening at a jazz club, a christening – into heated discussions of marriage, death, otherness, self-esteem, parenthood, benevolence, even punctuation (funny, since Gibson famously uses none in her scripts). Despite the signature rhythmic, almost musical, quality to her writing, there are still times when the cast’s speeches feel too heavy to bear and their baiting candour is alienating, even though Gibson’s searing humour keeps the pace up. (Including a running gag about repeating “I’m sorry;” maybe there’s more Canadian left in Gibson than we thought.)
But with the genius plot point of Alan as the inarguably objective observer, Gibson nails a skewering scene that reveals them to be just as self-obsessed in reconstructing their pasts as they are in arguing over the present. In moments, perhaps slightly overemphasized by director Matthew Jocelyn and the cast, each character uses the word “this” to encapsulate the situation in which they are overwhelmed. And it’s not until Jane can understand someone else’s “that” that she can move on. A bit conceptual, but still quite moving.
Meanwhile, all of this happens to take place smack in the middle of the audience’s “this” as well. Jocelyn and designer Astrid Janson have dramatically stripped the historic Berkeley Street Theatre down to its bare, red-brick bones, removing the stage, backstage area, and the fourth wall too. Actors walk through the aisles and sit in the seats, the house lights and stage lights are one and the same, and Jean-Pierre enters and exits through a door that leads directly onto the street. He is a man without borders, after all. Though it impairs the acoustics substantially, the aesthetics deliver. And there’s nothing more impactful when dealing with a play about midlife crises and mortality than to be reminded that the theatre itself is over a century old, and has gone through a few different identities of its own.
Jocelyn’s philosophical concept behind This is clearest, as that’s usually where his strengths lie. What suffers as a result is the humanization of the characters, in an otherwise enthralling script from a playwright with Canadian roots. Now that’s what we’re talking about.