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Was Spring: Women of different generations tell a story that doesn't quite add up

Tarragon Theatre, Was Spring

Handout | Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout | Cylla von Tiedemann

2 out of 4 stars

Daniel MacIvor's work tends to falls into two categories: sharp-edged and stylized solo shows ( This is What Happens Next, Cul-de-Sac) and warmer, multiple-character plays with all-female casts ( A Beautiful View, Communion). The Cape Breton-born playwright's latest, however, is a mix of his two main modes.

In Was Spring, which I saw in its final preview, MacIvor introduces us to three women: elderly, mischievous Kitty; damaged, middle-aged Kath; and young, hopeful Kit.

Kitty, played slowly and slyly by a saucer-eyed Clare Coulter like an abnormally large Oriental shorthair cat, has been taken to an elder-care facility after asking a passing woman for a cigarette. When the stranger subsequently entered Kitty's apartment, which looked like a particularly depressing episode of Hoarders, the stranger alerted the proper authorities.

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Kath, played by Caroline Gillis through gritted teeth, is a tough-as-nails woman who comes to visit Kitty and clearly doesn't much believe in respecting her elders. If she's hard on Kitty, she's harder on herself, only gradually opening up to tell her own story of a wayward daughter and a loveless marriage.

Kit, played by the charismatic if a little too contemporary newcomer Jessica Moss, shows up last and late, full of dreams (or delusions) about boys and music.

Though these three are different women, it eventually becomes apparent – through a shared love of hard candy – that they are the same woman at different ages. With the benefit – or perhaps the curse – of hindsight, the two older women tear strips off of the person they used to be.

This kind of slicing and dicing of character has been done on stage before, perhaps most notably in Michel Tremblay's fragmented 1984 masterpiece, Albertine in Five Times. (Like Tremblay, MacIvor is a gay playwright with a gift for writing about women, and a love-hate relationship with the hidebound, religious society in which he was raised.)

But Was Spring comes across as more simplistic about the process of aging – and it doesn't quite land the way it is intended. MacIvor's main mistake is to try to trick his audience into thinking Kitty, Kath and Kit are separate women at first. This means much of the play's dialogue is vague early on.

The precise details of MacIvor's theatrical set-up are hard to pin down as well. Does the action exist in Kitty's confused mind? Why do the characters occasionally speak directly to the audience?

Kimberly Purtell's nebulous set, two semi-transparent glass walls and three chairs, provides no clue. It looks like the women are in some sort of bus shelter, an impression compounded by Kitty's attempts to bum cigarettes off us.

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Doubling as director, MacIvor could have used an outside eye for this one. The stark, dark staging shows the influence of his long-time collaborator Daniel Brooks, but there's something substantial missing from the murk. Verne Good's sound design provides intermittent blasts from the women's pasts, but in between it's only the depressing hum of the theatre lights you hear. It makes you squirm, and not in a good way.

MacIvor is too strong a writer for Was Spring to leave you entirely unaffected. He's supplied his actors with many beautiful, bittersweet lines that are poetic, but not ostentatiously so. ("They don't call shy painful for nothing," is one remark that has stuck with me and became an ache.) He's also remarkable at painting pictures of the significant places in Kit/Kath/Kitty's life – a pile of manure behind a barn where a tryst takes place, a veranda overlooking a lake, a garden sneaking through a broken window.

Ultimately, however, Was Spring comes off as a preliminary therapy session that only skims the surface. There may be three of the main character, but she still doesn't fill the stage.

Was Spring

  • Written and directed by Daniel MacIvor
  • Starring Clare Coulter, Caroline Gillis and Jessica Moss
  • At the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space in Toronto until May 6
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