Saturday, July 28, 2018

Foster Festival World Premiere worth the wait

The second production of the third season for the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is up and running, and you should be running downtown to catch it before it's gone.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster, for whom the festival is named after, has hit all the emotional buttons with Come Down From Up River, the first of two World Premieres this season.  The characters are richly drawn and show even more depth than usual for a Foster play, which is saying something.

Norm Foster excels at holding a mirror up to the audience and showing us ourselves, but occasionally his witty dialogue may not run as deep as you might like in order to produce light and breezy summertime theatre fare.  That's not the case here, as this play proves to be one of his best and most thought-provoking plays.

Come Down From Up River tackles many issues, including bigotry, same-sex marriage, dealing with the death of a family member and ultimately settling long-standing differences between family members.  A lot to handle within two hours?  Not for Foster, who offers up some of his most sophisticated writing in this latest play.

We're introduced to Shaver Bennett, sort of the black sheep of the family who has lived a rather solitary existence as a logger in the woods of the Miramichi in northern New Brunswick.  But before we're actually introduced to him we're set up to dislike him due to the fact, according to his niece Bonnie Doyle, he appeared to be somewhat of a bigot in his younger days.  Not only that, Bonnie doubts he would approve of her same-sex marriage to Liv Arsenault.

This discussion comes out of news Shaver has written Bonnie to say he is coming south for a short visit in order to attend to medical matters at the neighbourhood hospital.  He has asked if he can stay overnight for a day or two before returning home.

When we're finally introduced to Shaver, darned if he isn't really kind of likeable after all.  And not in a bad boy sort of way.  He is older, wiser and a little amused by what Liv has learned of him from Bonnie.  When he arrives Bonnie just happens to have an important meeting to attend and leaves the ice-breaking to Liv alone.  She fails to see why Bonnie has not been in touch with him all these years.

What follows is an exploration of family values, acceptance and tolerance, all deftly handled by Norm Foster in a way that makes the rather bitter pill easier to swallow.  A pivotal scene pits Bonnie and Shaver in a one-on-one conversation as he awaits his appointment at the hospital, and they discuss their differences and the time that has passed by while apart.

The upshot of this hospital visit is Bonnie gets a new appreciation of Shaver, while he gets a diagnosis that is rather grim.  To me it's not quite realistic he would get the serious news he does on the same day as the visit, but I'm told that aspect of the play is based on actual events, so hey, colour me jaded.  At any rate, the hospital visit makes all three of them realize time has been passing them by.

Not wanting to give too much of the ending away, Shaver leaves for up north after he and Bonnie have reconciled somewhat, with a promise Bonnie and Liv will come up for a visit soon.  That would have been unheard of at the beginning of the play.

Director Patricia Vanstone has assembled a fine cast here, with Amanda Parsons making her Foster Festival debut as Bonnie.  Returning Festival favourites Kirsten Alter as Liv and Peter Krantz as Shaver also seem right at home in their roles.  Whether Foster wrote the play with these particular actors in mind is open to debate, I suppose, but all three actors are perfectly suited to their roles.

The simple set design cleverly depicts three locations, the central one being the century home where Liv and Bonnie live together.

There is a reason the Foster Festival is growing by leaps and bounds after only three years of existence:  quality work by all involved makes for a guaranteed pleasurable afternoon or evening of live theatre in the heart of the city.

Come Down From Up River continues until August 3rd, with matinee performances at 2 and evening performances at 7:30.  You can order tickets by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or online by going to

Enjoy your weekend!

July 28th, 2018.

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