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Ted Dykstra and Fiona Highet in the Dutch play Poison at the Coal Mine Theatre in Tornto.

Dahlia Katz

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Poison
Written by
Lot Vekemans
Genre
Play
Directed by
Peter Pasyk
Actors
Ted Dykstra and Fiona Highet
Company
Coal Mine Theatre
Venue
Coal Mine Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2017
Runs Until
Sunday, December 03, 2017

Poison is a delicate little play about grief by the Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans. It won't put you through the wringer, but it might seep into you.

A man (Ted Dykstra) and a woman (Fiona Highet) meet at a cemetery 10 years after their son was killed by a speeding driver. A mysterious poison has leaked into the ground where the boy is buried and the two have an appointment to discuss whether or not to move the grave.

This information is not immediately divulged, however; it takes a long while to figure out how these two unnamed characters are connected or why they are meeting, even though the play doesn't crack the 90-minute mark.

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First, there is coffee to be made, off stage, by the man. There is a bathroom break to be taken, by the woman. There is much aborted small talk.

With Poison following the Coal Mine's season opener of Annie Baker's The Aliens, it feels as if the intimate theatre company on Toronto's Danforth is giving us a peek at the slow-theatre movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poison was awarded a prize for the best Dutch play of 2010 – and has been performed widely in Europe, where Vekemans is viewed as a playwright who has moved the theatre back toward stories about characters after decades of more stylized and post-dramatic writing for the stage.

Perhaps Poison hasn't made as much of an impact in the English-speaking world due to the fact that most of our plays are like this, and we're not short of English-language dramas about couples dealing with the untimely deaths of children. The success of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole, which won a Pulitzer in 2007 and was turned into a movie in 2010, no doubt sated the appetite of North America theatres for plays on this darkest of subjects for a while.

But where Lindsay-Abaire gave audiences a fresh grief, Vekemans takes a longer view with her characters. The man has started a new family in a new country; the woman has stayed where the accident happened, not remarried, and regularly tends to her son's grave. He suggests she's wallowing; she can't understand how he could think grief is something you can have control over.

The two discuss whether it is better to have hope that happiness might return to their lives, or make peace with the fact that it never will in the same way.

Patrick Lavender's set swaddles the actors and audience in white – we're in a chapel along with the couple, the colours of light streaming through a stained-glass window making its way across the back wall over the course of the play.

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A water cooler and four chairs form the rest of the set – and Highet and Dykstra shift between the chairs as they give performances that are simple and unaffected. There's almost a blandness to their acting and director Peter Pasyk's production, which I saw in its final preview. I mean that as a compliment, mostly. Vekemans' depiction of the banality of grief is part of what's notable about her play – though it's hard to know what might be lost in the translation, which is occasionally stilted.

A few rich details and unusual moments of laughter pepper the evening, but there's nothing really that will surprise you in the script, the one twist coming off more as an open secret acknowledged.

I liked it: It's unusual to see a play on this subject that doesn't necessarily try to make you weep and wail, or have its characters do it. Perhaps the understatedness is part of the Dutchness of the script. The woman has brought tulip bulbs to plant, while the man brings out a slice of gouda to eat while they wait. There's a discussion about how easy it was to find parking because everyone bikes.

Poison continues to Dec. 3 (coalminetheatre.com)

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