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- Title: Things I Know to be True
- Written by: Andrew Bovell
- Director: Philip Riccio
- Actors: Tom McCamus, Seana McKenna, Alanna Bale, Michael Derworiz, Christine Horne, Daniel Maslany
- Companies: The Company Theatre and Mirvish Productions
- Venue: CAA Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: To Feb. 19, 2023
I’m writing this review with a lump in my throat.
Things I Know to be True, Andrew Bovell’s quietly devastating family drama, has that effect on you. It steadily ups the emotional ante over two hours and two acts, until finally it delivers a shattering climax. You walk out of the theatre (the CAA Theatre, in this case) with an overflowing heart.
True, the Australian playwright sometimes seems to be working off a list of all the issues that might beset a modern adult family, from one child’s broken marriage to another’s gender dysphoria. But it’s also true that he articulates those issues beautifully. And in this powerful Off-Mirvish production from Toronto’s Company Theatre, they are brought to life with total conviction by six splendid actors.
The first of these is Alanna Bale, portraying the youngest member of the Price clan. In the play’s opening monologue, her fragile Rosie confides to us that she’s cutting short a gap-year trip to Europe after being robbed and abandoned by a false lover. She’s flying back home to Australia, to the bosom of her family, whose love is one thing she knows to be true.
Sure enough, when she arrives unannounced in the kitchen of their suburban Adelaide home, her parents and siblings quickly rally around her. Fran (Seana McKenna), her shrewd mom, guesses what has happened even as Rosie denies it. Bob (Tom McCamus), her ever-supportive dad, takes his daughter out to the backyard for a reassuring talk.
But that familial certainty Rosie believes in is about to be rocked over the course of a year by a series of shocks.
The first comes from Pip (Christine Horne), the oldest Price child, a government bureaucrat, who reveals that she’s leaving her husband and two little girls for a new job – and a new man – in Vancouver. Later on, more bombshells are dropped by her brothers: Mark (Michael Derworiz), who had earlier split mysteriously from a long-time girlfriend, and Ben (Daniel Maslany), a financial worker whose free-spending ways particularly trouble his working-class dad.
The blows come even as Bob and Fran themselves are dealing with late-life issues. Bob, a redundant auto worker, retired too early and now, at 63, tries to fill his days tending his rose garden. Fran, a registered nurse, is afraid her husband is slipping into a premature dotage. She has also been hiding long-time secrets from him, which helps explain her outsized anger at Pip’s infidelity.
Stratford Festival stars McKenna and McCamus are magnificent as Fran and Bob, a couple who have fallen into a hard parent/soft parent routine that is increasingly tested with each new crisis. Fran, the one who steers the family ship, is tough on her kids – all except Ben, her favourite – but McKenna tempers her steel with a glint of good humour. And she also gives us glimpses of her character’s romantic, melancholic side – Fran is, after all, a fan of Leonard Cohen.
McCamus (who played a much different aging father earlier this season in Soulpepper’s Queen Goneril/King Lear) is a calm, mollifying presence as Bob. But there’s melancholy in his performance too. When we see him puttering aimlessly in the garden, we sense the sadness of a man old before his time.
Horne is equally marvelous as Pip, especially in her letter to Fran, delivered as a monologue, in which she expertly captures Pip’s aching self-knowledge that she’s making a decision with her heart and not her head. Derworiz, as the gentle Mark, makes palpable the agonies of what is probably one of the most difficult revelations a child can ever make to their parents. Fran and Bob’s initial response to it is appalling, but Bovell also allows us to understand it from their point of view.
Maslany gives Ben a frenetic youthful energy that contrasts with Bob’s plodding ways – something Ben emphasizes by cheerfully mocking his father. Just as Pip provokes Fran’s ire because the mother sees herself in the daughter, Bovell suggests there is some similar identification between Bob and Ben. Certainly, it’s Ben’s financial misdeeds that finally cause his father to explode with some ugly macho behaviour we never expected from him. But then this is a play of unexpected truths.
Local theatre audiences know Bovell from his previous dramas, When the Rain Stops Falling – the sleeper hit of the 2011 Shaw Festival – and Speaking in Tongues, which the Company Theatre also produced, in 2012. Where those plays had jigsaw-puzzle plots, this one is linear and largely naturalistic, although its original Australian/British production (in 2016) incorporated elements of physical theatre.
For its Canadian debut, director Philip Riccio has jettisoned those in favour of kitchen-sink – and back-garden – realism. Designer Shannon Lea Doyle fills the stage with an elaborate indoor/outdoor set, complete with an overhanging eucalyptus tree, while Nick Blais’s lighting subtly evokes the seasons and the hours of the day. But while Riccio has kept the play’s South Australian setting, he has his actors speak in their own Canadian accents.
That lack of authenticity didn’t bother me – not when he’s elicited such emotionally authentic performances from his cast. It’s that fundamental honesty in Things I Know to be True that gets to you. It leaves you feeling that you’ve shared one family’s pain, but also its underlying love.