Like the First Time opens with a striking picture. Actress Cathy Murphy appears to have hanged herself from a chandelier with a noose made out of sheer black material; another swath of dark fabric spreads out from her lower body and across the stage floor. In the background, a painting of blue sky and clouds hangs on the wall in counterpoint.
Murphy's character has attempted suicide, but, as her dress's connection to the ground suggests, not quite succeeded. Unless, that is, she has succeeded; the question is left open. ("Am I or am I not alive?" she asks at one point, uncertain.)
'I'm avoiding the name of Murphy's character for a reason: She is given three over the course of Adam Seelig's play.
Flora is what her oblivious, married lover, Marco (Dov Mickelson), calls her when he discovers her.
Fulvia is what she is called by Sylvio (Andrew Moodie), the estranged father of her child, who shows up on the scene shortly thereafter.
And Francesca is the name she adopts when she returns to Sylvio's house to become born again as stepmother to her now 16-year-old daughter, Livia (Jessica Salgueiro), who was brought up to believe her mother was dead.
What we have here is an identity crisis, a specific one that nods at a universal one concerning female stereotypes. How can this one woman be the untainted ideal of motherhood, a child-abandoning whore and a respectable stepmother all at once?
Like the First Time is modelled, to use Seelig's word, on Come prima, meglio di prima (Like Before, Better than Before), a 1920 play by Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, who would, a year after, write his classic Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author). Come prima, meglio di prima was initially the bigger hit, and Seelig is not the first to be inspired by it. Hollywood adapted Pirandello's play twice, including into a 1956 romance starring Rock Hudson called Never Say Goodbye.
Seelig's initial image – he's the director here too – suggests a twist on Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, with Flora/Fulvia/Francesca buried up to her waist in black, but Mickelson's Marco babbling on her behalf. He delivers a darkly comic monologue, justifying why he has left his children to be with her, all the while seemingly unaware that she is hanging from the ceiling.
Soon, however, Seelig's play makes a major shift in tone, turning into a brightly lit domestic drama chez Sylvio and Livia. As the question of the central character's identity moves from the realm of poetry to the literal, the play morphs from metaphysical to melodramatic.
The style of the writing wavers as well, from abstract to casually conversational to a tad too clever, as with Sylvio's line about "a gentleman caller hanging around her neck."
It's difficult to get invested in the soap opera between Flora/Fulvia/Francesca and Livia, despite strong performances from Murphy and Salgueiro. (Elva Mai Hoover is also in good form as a chatty aunt, but her character seems extraneous.)
The relationships between Ms. F-something and the two men are ultimately more intriguing. Mickelson's disturbed Marco is particularly fascinating, as he confesses he long considered strangling his wife and pleading "premeditated insanity."
Meanwhile, Moodie's tense, hand-wringing Sylvio seems out of a Harold Pinter play with his menacing silences – though, at times, his performance comes across as an uncertain characterization, an enigma to himself rather than just to us.
Like the First Time runs until Nov. 13.
Like the First Time
- Written and directed by Adam Seelig
- Starring Cathy Murphy, Andrew Moodie, Dov Mickelson
- At the Walmer Centre Theatre in Toronto