By Joe Szek
Scarborough Theatre Guild certainly took a chance in their Winter 2018 production of Canadian Norm Foster’s ‘Drinking Alone’. I had never heard of this play before, so I had no idea what to expect. A respectable number of Foster’s plays are classified as dramas with comic moments, and ‘Drinking Alone’ is one example. Although the title made me do a double take when I first heard of it, this Saturday night audience appeared to enjoy the story on an extremely cold winter’s evening.
‘Drinking Alone’ opens with the lonely dry-cleaning store operator Joe who has hired escort Renee to role play his fiancée while his curmudgeonly father and book store owner Ivan has stopped by with his wife Phyllis. Dad wishes to speak to his estranged son and to his problem drinker, television news anchor and daughter Carrie before he and his wife travel overseas.
Personally, and it is not any cause of the Scarborough production, the script for ‘Drinking Alone’ is not as powerfully written as is ‘The Melville Boys’, one of Foster’s earlier plays whose story touches my heart deeply. This is not to say, however, this production of ‘Drinking Alone’ is not worth seeing as there are some exemplary staged moments under the visionary guidance of director Mark Nathanielsz who, as his programme bio states, is no stranger to Norm Foster plays.
The more professional and non-professional productions I’ve been able to see, the more I fully appreciate how much preparatory work goes on behind the scenes to create theatre magic on stage. Stage Managers Diana Czortek and Nitin Mascreen hold the major responsibility to ensure said magic occurs each performance, and I’m certain they both are in place to oversee all are ready to go when cued and prompted.
‘Drinking Alone’ transported audiences back to 1995, a mere twenty plus years ago (not that long ago in this old guy’s mind). Steve Noll’s stylised set décor, and his team’s recreation of a living room in bad need of a paint job on the walls with some unsightly misshapen green fabric chesterfield, matching chairs and stand-alone television, nicely sets what kind of furniture single man, Joe, would probably have had in his house. Kudos to the exquisite cabinet resplendent with family china dinnerware.
Vivian Hisey and Gary Prudence’s sound selection of music from the mid 1990s underscores many of the themes of ‘Drinking Alone’. I smiled at a couple of the song selections about family and dysfunction and how they particularly worked extremely well given the themes of this play. Chris Northey and Alan Page’s lighting design and operation beautifully wash across the entire living room and warmly accentuate various playing areas, especially around the dining room table. Maria Steventon and Gloria Worman’s tasteful work in costume, make up and hair design create unique looking individuals who seize the audience’s attention upon their initial entrance.
As in most Foster plays, we are introduced to an ensemble of dysfunctional individuals ripe for a psychiatric session and ‘Drinking Alone’ does not disappoint whatsoever. Mr. Nathanielsz has worked closely with his actors to create naturalistic, believable and realistic characters with all their idiosyncratic tendencies intact. Mr. Foster’s plays require quick witted banter and one-line zingers back and forth to propel the action forward as quickly as possible.
For the most part, these five actors show us the consistent tautness and release of tension given who is in control at any moment. Nevertheless, there were times where the stage action drags since performances here are theatre in the round. When the backs of actors are turned to one side of the audience, it becomes problematic to hear the dialogue. As the production continues over the next two weeks, I’m certain the actors will be mindful of both pacing and enunciation.
As ‘sad sack’ dry cleaner operator Joe, Scott Simpson’s performance tears at our heart strings periodically. Mr. Simpson skillfully uses his eyes to heighten our sadness for Joe. Pay close attention to the moment when he announces in a matter of fact statement to effervescent Renee (Melinda Jordan) that he has no friends. Ms. Jordan’s bubbly performance as the sympathetic escort provides several humorous, unintentional and misinformed circumstantial events of the evening, especially during the Trivial Pursuit game in the first act. Katie Pounder handles the role of Carrie delicately and carefully given the problems that alcohol does provide to many people. Ms. Pounder is to be applauded and commended for not making ‘problem drinking’ comical as we learn more about Carrie’s past rocky relationship with her father.
To play a blustery and vulgar patriarchal father offers older actors a challenge to create a memorable character, and Tom Macdonald rises to this task admirably. According to his programme bio, Mr. Macdonald has returned to the community theatre stage after more than a thirty-year absence, and he offers a carefully nuanced performance as Ivan in the essential information he gradually shares with his grown children. Elaine Lindo gives a lovely and sweet performance as Ivan’s second wife, Phyllis, who is always trying to mend fences, restore calm, and build bridges between father and children.
Performances of Norm Foster’s ‘Drinking Alone’ staged by the Scarborough Theatre Guild continue January 11-13 (inclusive), 18, 19 at 8 pm and January 14 and 20 at 2 pm at the Scarborough Village Community Centre, 3600 Kingston Road Scarborough. Tickets may be purchased at the box office before each performance, telephone 416-267-9292 or visit the website for further information.
Produced by Alison Overington and Directed by Mark Nathanielsz