This week you can discover a theatrical gem at the Arts Resource Centre in downtown Oshawa. The Book of Esther is being produced by Durham Shoestring Performers from January 27 to 30, boldly produced, directed and designed by DSP artistic director Carolyn Wilson. Although there are no direct connections between the play and the popular Hebrew story in the Old Testament, themes of coming of age, self-discovery, courage in the face of intolerance, and the reach for redemption do connect the two “Esthers.”
The main strength of the production is a brilliant ensemble cast (perhaps an overused phrase) but absolutely appropriate in this case. What most demonstrated the divisions and the ultimate bonds among the characters was their voices – the cadence, the rhythms , the pulse. It begins with Anthea – the neo conservative evangelist, played with great control by Gillian Woodhouse. Her voice has a calm, sing song effect as she speaks to the young church audience with clipped lines that belie her religious fervour. That control with her voice often becomes challenged with the surge of later events.
Todd Wishart – who represents the bridge and the divide between farm and city as well as the clashing lifestyles – is played with subtle comic undertones by veteran John Lunman. His voice is also calm, but very dignified as he tries to be the sense of reason among the various conflicts. Ironically in the second act, he says “we need to talk” which launches him into an uncharacteristic venting of anger with loud and uncontrolled speech.
Another strength of the cast is a balance between youth and (I will be careful here) “veteran” actors. The teenage urban gay activist, A.D., is superbly played by Mason Guy. His voice is frenetic, staccato – echoing the wild rhythms of a politically charged Toronto. His feverish physicality, initiated with a rebelious entrance through a window, serves as a foil for the more staid rhythms of the farm. Caroline Rodway plays the signature Esther with a fine combination of naïve wonder and pragmatic resolve. Her voice is often shy and measured until she masters her confidence (like Queen Esther of the old testament) and asserts herself, not just with volume, but also with thoughtful articulation. We experience a brilliant moment where she recites “The Lord is my shepherd” with her mother. They make a true connection, but we still see a contrast with her youthful exuberance and Anthea’s fatigue.
Esther’s father, Seth, is played with effective abandonment by Joe Szekeres, contrasting the control of the rest of his family. If he is angry, dispirited, or wildly drunk, he is not afraid to show it. Sometimes, though, we get a window into his underlying fears when he talks without looking at someone – or when there are telling silences between himself and his daughter.
Supporting the cast is a set that suggests a pious, utilitarian lifestyle – all harsh angles and simplicity. The heart of the set contrasts, though, between the warm colours of the rug and the rocking chair cushion (in the urban scenes) and the plain beige of the second act rug and the lack of cushions displaying the harsher mood of the farm scenes. Darlene Bloom’s costume work also effectively created the various contrasts - sometimes with subtlety and sometimes with brassy glare.
This production is stirring and engaging. Ms. Wilson’s clever ending creates introspection with the sudden glare of florescent house lights trained on the audience and Esther joining us with the final line – “I have a few questions.”
Happy Purim DSP!