Saturday, August 13, 2016

Final offering of the first Foster Festival season is a must-see

The third and final offering of the inaugural season of The Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opened this week, and it's a fitting finale to the season.

The Foster Festival has the rights to premiere any and all new Norm Foster plays, and given the fact Mr. Foster, easily Canada's most-produced living playwright, has already churned out about 60 plays during his career we could be seeing several more World Premieres in the coming years.

Norm Foster has managed to take a funny situation many of us may have found ourselves in, make it even funnier with his knack for clever dialogue, and imbue the characters with a human vulnerability you don't always see in plays on the traditional summer stock circuit.

No wonder Foster plays have been the mainstay of these summer stock theatres for years now - he knows how to entertain an audience and allow them to see themselves or at least someone they know in each and every one of his plays.

This last play of the season, the World Premiere for the inaugural Foster Festival, is entitled Halfway to the North Pole.  The play is set in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, a real-life town whose claim to fame is the fact the town is exactly half-way between the Equator and the North Pole.  How you can parlay that into a tourism industry is a little beyond my comprehension, but the play should, if nothing else, make people want to stop by on their next trip to the East Coast and check it out.

Our esteemed Mayor, Walter Sendzik in fact, visited the town on his recent summer vacation down east, and the Mayor of Stewiacke Wendy Robinson was in the audience on opening night to enjoy the show.

So what's to see in town?  Well, according to the play there's the town diner, the local watering hole down the street and...well, lots of interesting people to get to know.

Enter Dr. Sean Merritt, who happens into Stewiacke to fill-in for the regular doctor at the local clinic for a month, and he stops by the diner known as Junior's Cafe for a bite to eat.  He's from Toronto, and that provides fodder for the requisite "We hate Toronto" laughs.  He soon discovers each order at the diner comes with a heaping helping of curiosity on the part of the locals when someone new wanders into town.

Dr. Merritt gets the once over by the three ladies in town who gather at the diner every day promptly at 4 for discuss life in town, Vi, Rita and Mary Ellen.  He seems to take an immediate liking to the fourth member of the group, Janine, who runs the diner.

When the four ladies, played respectively by Lisa Horner, Sheila McCarthy, Helen Taylor and Kirsten Alter gather each day in the diner, it is sort of a Stewiacke version of The View.  Nothing escapes their attention, and they have an opinion on most everything and everyone who crosses their path.

The remainder of the play traces the route that brings this unlikely group together and charts the course for a possible future in Stewiacke for the good doctor when his one-month tour of duty at the clinic is done.

Foster plays explore the human element each time out, and here the verbal give-and-take between the doctor and Janine drives the action from start to finish, with several bumps in the road along the way. I suspect the College of Physicians and Surgeons would have a few things to say about the good doctor's attempts at wooing a local patient, but it provides plenty of comic gold for Foster to mine for a good two hours.

All of the characters get their share of great lines, but none better than Lisa Horner's Vi, whose reference to Neil Young's Heart of Gold in relation to a medical examination provides one of the funniest moments in the play.  You may never think the same way of Neil Young again!

The cast is exceptional, with Horner very nearly stealing the show as a wise-cracking wife who has drunk deeply from the well of life.  She almost does, but Sheila McCarthy's amorous Rita who falls for most any man who will give her the time of day gives Horner a run for her money.  The two are worth the price of admission alone.

I think Darren Keay's Sean Merritt was not quite up to the rest of the cast; he does well with the part certainly but the ladies are constantly upstaging him with their comic timing.

The sets, costumes and direction by Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone all hit the mark perfectly, making this one of the must-see shows of the summer season.

Halfway to the North Pole runs at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 27th and you should really go and see it.  Tickets are available through the PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival would not have happened in St. Catharines if we didn't have the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in which to play, so consider ourselves very lucky to have a festival of such quality right in our own backyard.  If you love good theatre and a great night out, consider supporting The Foster Festival before this season ends.

Have a great weekend!

August 13th, 2016.

No comments: