Sunday, June 30, 2019

Foster Festival kicks off the season with a winner

The fourth season of The Foster Festival is now underway in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines and unlike past seasons, the first show of the season is not full of uproarious laughter at every turn.

That's not to say The Writer, Norm Foster's 60th play receiving its World Premiere performance at the Festival isn't funny.  Quite the contrary.  But while past productions show why Foster is a master of the humorous side of the human condition, The Writer takes us in the other direction and provides a sometimes gut-wrenching experience many of us have dealt with in our own lives and finds shafts of light and gentle humour throughout.

In other words, your sides won't ache from laughter but your heart will ache instead.

Before I get into the play itself, I want to set the scene on a personal level, and this is something we'll all end up doing when watching the play.

Earlier this month my sister Kelli and I took a sunny Saturday and drove down to Toronto where our entire family history is buried in three separate cemeteries.  It had occurred to me some time ago we had not properly documented where people are and specific dates of their respective passings.  I called it the 'Family Plot Tour' and it wasn't the least bit morbid.  We laughed at the thought of past memories in most cases when remembering many family members and celebrated lives well lived.  It was a bonding exercise for my sister and I and we'll always treasure this day we shared together.

Family members included our parents, of course, as Mom passed away 19 years ago and Dad ten years ago.  With Mom it was very sudden but with Dad it was a slower decline not unlike that experienced by the elder Wellner, Donald, in Foster's play.  My father's mother died in 1981 after several years of decline and increasing dementia.

Dad had his basic faculties almost up until the end but the gradual decline with his mother struck me particularly hard as I visited her in the nursing home and she had no idea who I was.  I could not go back; the pain was too great for me.  And strangely upon reflection now, there was no preparation for this experience beforehand.

That's why The Writer is such an important play for everyone to see.  It gives us insight into what many of us will experience as family members we love and cherish decline in their later years.  For me, I could have really used this play back in 1981!

The writer in the title is indeed Donald Wellner, a Pulitzer-prize-winning author of A Kind Heart, a play that made his career many years ago.  He hasn't had another hit since and still clings to the hope his next play will be it.  Alas, he just can't seem to get started typing anything substantial on his trusty old Underwood typewriter.  By the end of the play and through eight scenes, he's managed only ten pages of his next great success.

His son Blake, who is 42 when the play begins is himself a writer, but 'only a travel writer' his father almost sneers.  Blake acts as a go-between as his father is now estranged from his wife and daughter, living in a dingy apartment with little furniture save for little more than a desk, a chair and his Underwood typewriter.

It seems the elder Wellner had been paying the rent for an actress he had known for many years and his wife, upon discovering the fact, throws him out accusing him of infidelity in their marriage.  The daughter sides with Mom, so Donald is left to his own devices until Blake tries to intervene.  Trouble is, mother and daughter now won't have anything to do with Donald, in spite of the fact he remains confident they will overcome this 'speed bump' in their relationship soon enough.

It never happens.

Through the eight scenes of The Writer, Foster guides us through the difficult eight years that transpire in the play, during which time father Donald starts to lose his memory and gradually succumb to dementia.  He eventually moves into a nursing home but that is about the only improvement in his lonely existence.

Son Blake is at his side throughout, visiting on regular intervals in spite of his busy schedule and work that frequently requires him to be away.  He sees the decline and knows he can't do much about it other than manage it as best he can.

In the final heartbreaking scene, the elder Wellner remembers his estranged daughter well yet son Blake, sitting right beside him, is unknown to him.  It is a scene many can identify with, myself included, and it isn't easy to handle.  And yes, for me the memories of 1981 came flooding back at that moment.

The two actors in The Writer are amazing.  Jamie Williams, who last appeared at the Festival in Foster's Here on the Flight Path provides the anchor the elder Wellner needs in his life at this point and does so with great patience and tact.  Donald Wellner is played by Shaw Festival stalwart Guy Bannerman and shines brightly in his Foster Festival debut.

Bannerman has always been a great supporting actor at Shaw but here he needs to carry the show along with Williams.  He clearly relishes the opportunity to drive the action of the play and Guy simply does not disappoint.

Director Patricia Vanstone directs with great sensitivity, while sets, lighting and costumes never get in the way of the story; all work together to provide a simple yet elegant backdrop for the two actors who bring The Writer to life in truly magical ways.

The Writer is simply one of Norm Foster's best efforts.  Whether it gets the exposure in the future it deserves will depend on choices made on the summer theatre circuit in the years to come.  But clearly The Foster Festival is providing a wonderful forum for Norm Foster to stretch his considerable talents and as he puts it himself, step outside of his comfort zone.

Catch The Writer if you can.  It continues until July 5th at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and will be well worth your time.  You won't be disappointed.

For tickets call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

Have a great holiday weekend!

June 30th, 2019.

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Great write up Mike. I wish I could take in more theatre. I've always enjoyed it.