Given how prolific playwright Morris Panych is, one has to wonder where he gets his ideas. His latest, In Absentia, apparently came about when he pondered the change in seasons. In what seems a truly Canadian exercise, he surmised that while winter is cruel, spring is perhaps even harsher, reminding us that we must go on and endure, no matter the degree of hardship.
In Absentia, the second Panych premiere to take place in Montreal in as many years, features his frequent collaborator Jillian Fargey as Colette, a woman struggling to deal with the fact that her husband Tom (Paul Hopkins) has been gone for several months. Tom, who worked for some soulless company, was taken hostage by leftists rebels in South America, but contact with his captors broke off some time ago, and Tom's fate is left hanging. It's a horrid, nagging, existential dilemma no one would want to have to face.
Colette seems to handle it pretty well, and at times, In Absentia's supporting characters – a well-meaning but irritatingly uptight sister, an overly optimistic neighbour – border on rosy sitcom territory. But Colette's seeming emotional stability is explained by the fact that she's haunted by what is either the ghost of her dead husband, or by her own conversation with him.
Things become infinitely more complicated when a young drifter (Jade Hassouné) shows up, and Colette ushers him in from the cold. Her fragile emotional state, we're led to believe, leads her to suspend her better judgment and let him stay for a while – and infuses the play with some sexual tension.
Colette's longing for her husband and her new-found infatuation lead to a series of big questions: What is love, anyway? Is her love for her husband really only so epic when he's gone? Panych has crafted a midlife crisis play, and Colette is having what could perhaps best be described as an Alfie moment. Panych hoists some additional life-isn't-fair baggage into the mix with his supporting players, who state rather bluntly that the great love of one's life is often someone who's already accounted for.
In Absentia benefits from an able cast, and Luc Prairie's lighting design and John Dinning's set design combine to create a strikingly realistic on-stage snowfall, but Panych loads on the plot twists in his second act in a way that strains credulity. Colette is left to ponder the seasons and their meaning as her world turns. (Panych must have been watching the weather channel a lot as he penned this one.) As she looks out at the frosty lake her house sits adjacent to, pondering the meaning of life, love and mortality, we watch the final moments of a play that isn't quite as grand as the big ideas it floats.
- Written by Morris Panych
- Directed by Roy Surette
- With Jillian Fargey, Susan Glover, Jade Hassouné, Paul Hopkins and Carlo Mestroni
- At the Centaur Theatre in Montreal
In Absentia runs until March 4.