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Jessica B. Hill and Jeremiah Sparks in Paint Me This House of Love at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.Cylla von Tiedemann

  • Title: Paint Me This House of Love
  • Written by: Chelsea Woolley
  • Director: Mike Payette
  • Actors: Jessica B. Hill, Tanja Jacobs and Jeremiah Sparks
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre
  • Venue: Tarragon Extra Space
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 7, 2023

Paint Me This House of Love is a play that could have used a coat of primer underneath – a foundation to help the colour and texture of playwright Chelsea Woolley’s writing pop.

Tarragon Theatre’s final full show of its fine first full season since the pandemic started – the Toronto company’s first full season with Mike Payette as artistic director, too – sees a father reuniting with his daughter after an absence of 25 years or so.

Jules (Shaw Festival regular Jeremiah Sparks) has made a surprise appearance at the shabby, scuffed-up house of Cecilia (Stratford Festival regular Jessica B. Hill), and as the lights come up they jump right into their first conversation in a quarter century.

The two seemed stunned to be together, neither of them capable of forming a complete sentence. But this style of communication – or non-communication – doesn’t go away as they grow more comfortable with one another.

In quick back-and-forth exchanges of clipped, truncated and incomplete lines of dialogue, we learn a little about Jules and Cecilia’s estrangement and their lives apart from one another. But only a little. There are even bigger gaps in the information provided about partners and jobs and the past than there are in their sentences.

Rhondi, Cecilia’s mother, is the third character in the play and omnipresent in the form of unanswered calls on Cecilia’s phone. Her ringtone is Game of Thrones as barked by dogs.

That sets things up effectively for Rhondi’s eventual appearance in the flesh in the form of veteran stage actor Tanja Jacobs, who is an absolute hoot as this truth-teller with an eccentric and powerful personality now on her fourth husband. (Her best so far, though the bar is low.)

Rhondi is still a single mother at heart, keeping money in her shoe for a quick escape for her and her daughter in case of emergency. She may be a brash character but she is also an endearing one – though it certainly helps that she is capable of finishing a thought.

The audience gets a taste of the wit Woolley is a capable of as a playwright in the complete sentences she’s written for Rhondi. For instance, of her inattention to the details of a conversation she had with a friend, she says: “I wasn’t listening; I’m not a snoop.”

Woolley’s choice to limit Jules and Cecilia to mere snippets of lines, by comparison, makes long stretches of the play feel like a writing exercise.

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Sparks and Hill – strong actors both – act over, under and around the dialogue to bring these characters and their yearning to life under the direction of Mike Payette.Cylla von Tiedemann

There are revelations clearly intended to make an impact in Paint Me This House of Love – things that have been half said that turn out to be half truths. But as this has been implied in the stilted speech from the start, they don’t land with an audience beyond making Cecilia seem unbearably naive.

Sparks and Hill – strong actors both – do act over, under and around the dialogue to bring these characters and their yearning to life under the direction of Payette. But as vague backstories are replaced by new vague backstories, the play seriously treads water.

Woolley, a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada’s playwright program, mentions the British playwright Harold Pinter and his pregnant pauses in her program note – but she hasn’t pulled off the trick here of writing in a way that makes the audience believe in something hidden underneath. The scenes where she is specific about the world she’s writing are the strongest, so here’s hoping her next produced play is a little less woolly in its style.

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