The British playwright and novelist David Storey was also a professional rugby player in his youth and it's tempting to see his play Home in a sporting light. This exquisitely enigmatic 1970 comedy, part of Soulpepper Theatre's spring season, opens with the verbal equivalent of a leisurely game of catch.
Two dapper older gents with posh English accents sit at a garden table and lob amusing banalities back and forth. Soon, the volley gets a trifle quicker, as the lively chap named Jack (Oliver Dennis) takes the lead, tossing out comments for which the more taciturn Harry (Michael Hanrahan) must find a suitable reply. Their conversation topics range widely, from their families and occupations to Sir Walter Raleigh and whether the Vale of Evesham was the original site of the Garden of Eden. Whenever one throws out a wild non sequitur, the other makes a nimble save with an appropriate retort.
Then a couple of working-class women, Kathleen (Brenda Robins) and Marjorie (Maria Vacratsis), take the field and the game gets rougher. The men try to maintain their civil banter, but Marjorie swats it back abrasively, while Kathleen convulses with laughter at the slightest hint of sexual innuendo. Meanwhile, a rogue player called Alfred (Andre Sills) periodically wanders in and mysteriously hoists aloft the table and chairs as if moving the goalposts.
As we slowly start to discover, these characters are the inmates of a lunatic asylum. Storey's sly game is to make us see modern England in the microcosm of the madhouse. There are continual references to "home," to an "island," with wistful talk of empire and, near the play's end, a passing mention of "sunset." While it sounds trite, it's put across with artful subtlety. Storey, like Beckett, invites interpretations but doesn't commit to any one view. The island talked about may be Britain, but it could also be each of these characters, gregarious and yet isolated in their particular mental illness.
When Home made its debut at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1970, it starred the mighty Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud as Jack and Harry, respectively. Dennis, while younger than those acting legends at the time of that first production, manages to evoke a bit of both men. He looks a little like the slender, balding Gielgud, but there are times when you hear faint echoes of Richardson when he speaks Jack's lines. Ultimately, though, he gives a signature Oliver Dennis performance, witty and lovably eccentric. This is Dennis's 50th show with Soulpepper and surely he must be a candidate for a Most Valuable Player award.
It's the sublime Hanrahan, however, who plumbs the play's underlying melancholy. His infinitely agreeable Harry also appears continually distracted, and he delivers his funniest lines with an incongruously solemn expression that suggests a dark and troubled mind. The play calls on both Harry and Jack to occasionally weep for no apparent reason, and there's something profoundly sad in seeing Hanrahan's rock-steady Englishman suddenly dissolving into tears.
Harry and Jack suffer from a genteel madness. Their female counterparts show no such reticence. Robins is especially entertaining as a gawky, cockney Kathleen, who keeps compulsively plucking at the straps of her too-tight shoes. She's brazenly frank about both her sex addiction and her suicidal tendencies. Vacratsis's sour Marjorie, her face locked in a scowl, isn't into being discreet, either. She mocks Sills's monosyllabic Alfred about his lobotomy and needles Dennis's Jack, trying to get him to admit to the crime that has apparently landed him in the loony bin.
Director Albert Schultz maintains a pastoral tone throughout. Even Alfred's manhandling of the furniture is more silly than threatening. Set and costume designer Ken MacKenzie dresses Harry and Jack in three-piece suits and places behind them a vast projected backdrop of slow-moving clouds, giving the overall impression of a serenely surreal René Magritte painting. Lorenzo Savoini's lighting bathes their garden in sunshine and John Gzowski's sound design fills the air with birdsong.
Storey's writing here may be too elliptical for some tastes. If you're not looking for answers, however, but only to be beguiled by a champion wordsmith and a winning team of actors, Soulpepper's Home makes for a great spectator sport.
- Starring Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan, Brenda Robins, Andre Sills and Maria Vacratsis
- Written by David Storey
- Directed by Albert Schultz
- A Soulpepper Theatre production
- At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto
Home runs until June 20.