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Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Molly Parker in a scene from Harper Regan.

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Harper Regan
Written by
Simon Stephens
Directed by
Matthew Jocelyn
Company
Canadian Stage
Venue
Bluma Appel Theatre
City
Toronto

Molly Parker doesn't have anything to hide behind, not even a proscenium arch, in director Matthew Jocelyn's sparsely staged production of Harper Regan at Canadian Stage.

You may know Parker from House of Cards on Netflix or Deadwood on HBO; I'm way behind on the golden age of television, so to me she is still Hope from CBC's Twitch City.

That wonderfully weird series dates back to 1998, which is about the last time the Canadian actress appeared on a stage rather than a screen. She's picked a brave role to return to tread the boards with – the title character in ubiquitous-except-in-Canada British playwright Simon Stephens's 2008 drama.

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Harper – whose name gains an unintended political resonance here, but is meant merely to be unusual – is a breadwinning mother, living with her husband and daughter on the outskirts of London, who one day receives news that her diabetic father is dying back up north of Manchester.

We first meet Harper as she is attempting to get a short leave from her bizarrely overbearing boss, played by Hardee Lineham with a mix of whimsy and menace. "If you go, I don't think you should come back," he tells her.

Harper does go, after a little hesitation, but Parker never leaves the stage for the rest of the play; she settled with increasing comfort into the intense role over the course of opening night, gaining a bigger and more confident presence as the play progressed, an arc that matches her character's.

Harper Regan is mostly a series of unsettling dialogues with those that Harper encounters on her trip up and down England.

There's the mysteriously unemployed architect she is married to (a beautifully fragile Alex Poch-Goldin), her teenage daughter (a luminously angry Vivien Endicott-Douglas), a young man of nebulous non-English stock (Izaak Smith), an obsequious nurse (Endicott-Douglas again) and a coke-sniffing, paranoid journalist (Philip Riccio, who nearly steals the show in his brief turn).

Along the way, Harper doesn't exactly discover secrets about her husband and father, but acknowledges and perhaps even accepts truths that she's just been avoiding eye contact with for years. Stephens's approach to dramatic storytelling as a movement toward recognition and realization is Greek in that way. His play doesn't really twist and turn; it straightens out – and watching it is a constant act of reassessment for the increasingly enlightened audience.

For his staging, Jocelyn has removed the front few rows from the Bluma Appel Theatre and built a thrust extension into the audience that makes the notoriously poorly designed space more intimate.

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Hence, no screen-like pictures for Parker to slip into, and not much of a set for her to lean on. She doesn't put on a British accent as a disguise, either; she and the rest of the cast speak in their natural ones.

That last directorial choice is one I always prefer in theory rather than practice; it doesn't bring the performer closer to the words in this case, but adds a layer of estrangement between actor and character to a play that is already about people who seem a little off-kilter. Add in Jocelyn's propensity to direct comedy toward exaggeration, rather than understatement, and it's hard to tell what's meant to be awkward and what isn't.

There's a general haphazardness to the production that often leaves the actors looking like bobble-heads lost in space; Parker's unsheltered performance is just part and parcel of this.

Even stripped of contexts of culture and class, however, Stephens's script is a rich and resonant one. And there are benefits to simply being able to listen to it as if we're at a production of Shakespeare at old-school Stratford.

Close to the end of the play, Harper briefly reunites with her estranged mother (Lynne Griffin), who is a little bit like we have been told she is, and a little bit not. "If you go and you never come back," she says, twisting around the first line of the play, "I'll still be glad that I told you the truth."

Harper Regan is an exploration of the benefits and drawbacks of telling the truth, of showing yourself to your partner, to your children, to strangers – and of really seeing them. Harper's journey is the script's journey, from evasiveness to directness; she goes, but does she come back?

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Jocelyn symbolizes this with a curtain that descends at the start of the play and ascends at the end (as well as the decision to have the music between scenes move from speed metal to classical music), but he doesn't actually realize it. His production starts and ends at a remove, aloof.

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