by Joan MacLeod
Directed by Martha Henry
Starring Eric Peterson and Brenda Robins
at CanStage/Bluma Appel Theatre until January 28
27 Front Street East/ (416) 368-3110 & (416) 872-1111

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Joan MacLeodís newest play, Homechild, is inspired by the history of the 100,000 Home Children who were sent to Canada from Britain between 1860 and 1930. But it is apparent that MacLeod got sidetracked on her way to meet the boats and trains that transported the human cargo. More fascinating by far is her preoccupation with the contemporary world wherein a father and his daughter cannot even hint at rapprochement, where the dairy farm of her youth and his past is wasting away and the father refuses to acknowledge its decay. As it is, the play is series of vignettes roughly cobbled together, and not many of them reach below a shallow surface.

MacLeod, an award-winning playwright, sets her story in rural eastern Ontario, where a daughter (Brenda Robins) from Toronto comes to visit her aging and ailing father (Eric Peterson). Their relationship is unhappy, though reasons for the tensions between them are never explained or examined. The fatherís sudden stroke further complicates the impasse, but it also reveals a long-concealed secret: the father had a younger sister that no one but he had known about. The revelation of a sister (the daughterís aunt) sets the daughter to determine her whereabouts. This proves to be a relatively simple matter and, in no time, the woman arrives from Vancouver to introduce herself to brother, niece, nephew and the others who gather in the kitchen of the family farmhouse.

The urgency of discovering an unknown past and identifying a connection that might give comfort where none previously existed is compelling. And MacLeod manages to suggest the daughterís yearning for family without resorting to awkward sentiment. But the playwright has yet to find a dramatic way into this story. The first act meanders between various charactersí conversations so much that we lose sight of the play altogether. The second act, taken up with the search for, and the appearance of, the missing sister, fails to refer back to so much that was introduced in the first half.

MacLeod allows too much chat and not enough purpose in the dialogue. We never gain much insight into the backgrounds of any of the people onstage and so their several dilemmas are of little weight. Just as the daughter flirts with the neighbourís son, so does the playwright flirt with the lives of her assembled characters. The result, finally, is hardly fascinating.

Furthermore, the play is not helped by its current production, though the company of actors does its level best to breathe life into what is often beyond saving. Once again, the cavernous stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre sabotages the designer and the director. Astrid Janson, whose designs rarely fail to tie themes and characters into a visual landscape that elevate language to poetic imagery, takes up far too much space with porches, interiors (and the interior is utterly baffling with its onstage kitchen left untouched while so much action is suggested somewhere upstage and out of sight) and a vista of highlands, a hospital room and, well, whatever else counts as here-and-nowhere. The playís demand for a naturalistic playing style and a cinematic shift in settings has not been carefully enough considered.

Director Martha Henry compounds the problem by staging extended conversations on a porch that faces into the wings, or having a dinner scene played with the audience essentially abandoned in the process. The single scene that plays well and connects us to the characters is in the second act when Wesley (Randy Hughson), a neighbour, talks to Lorna, the daughter from Toronto. Robins and Hughson sit downstage centre and we finally relax because we can hear what they say (the acoustics throughout are strangely and annoyingly very poor, making much of the first act a test of audience endurance) without having to lean forward in our seats. But the moment is quick and the scene is, like too many others, dispensable.

In the central roles of Lorna and Alistair, her father, Brenda Robins and Eric Peterson do what they can with the little theyíve been handed. They work hard to suggest a relationship in crisis, but the playwright lets them down with repeatedly predictable dialogue. He is cantankerous and she is tired of his barking. They are given nothing of value to say to each other, or to anyone else, and try as they do, the actors repeat themselves again and again. Tom Rooney, Barbara Gordon, Patricia Hamilton and Randy Hughson, among others, are charming, engaging and everything you could ask for in a company of actors. What a pity that they are used to such little advantage.

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