by Charlotte Jones
Directed by Richard Rose
Tarragon Theatre until February 12
30 Bridgman Avenue/416-531-1827

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Humble Boy, the award-winning play by Charlotte Jones, may not sustain its own initial energy and invention, but it provides Toronto audiences with a showcase that makes the season bright and exhilarating in mid-January. The Tarragon Theatre production, simply and shrewdly directed by Artistic Director Richard Rose, boasts an excellent cast. More than this, the actors balance each other as they extend themselves, thus creating ensemble work that sets a standard we rarely experience.

A man has died. His son returns home for the funeral to find his mother is wildly in love with another man, a man the son detests. The detested man has a daughter that the son previously loved. An all-knowing gardener comes and goes, dispensing uncanny awareness of the complications swirling about these peopleís troubled lives. It is a wonky meditation on Hamlet, among other literary sources, and for the first three-quarters of the evening, this is enough to sustain our interest and our fascination. The last ìmovementî of the play aims to engage us emotionally and it is here that Jones canít find a solution that works. The protracted ending, though very well delivered by the production (actors and designers, together), drops one style as it struggles to achieve another. 

Still, the play that precedes the false endnote has more than enough skill and charm to please most audiences. And the performances never lose their momentum.

Fiona Reid, as the widow, defines the meaning of comic timing. But more than merely comic, she endows the character with a complex underpinning that reveals a human being beneath the tart one-liners and brutal comebacks on the page. Reid, among our best and busiest actors, synthesizes her years of playing brittle comedy and serious drama into a character where both of these styles inform each other. There is no distinction between the snappy retort and the blistering truth. In Reidís hands, Flora Humble cannot be categorized or dismissed.

But her performance is not isolated. Nicola Lipman, as her friend, matches Reidís scalpel-sharp wit with her own dowdy hysteria. Michael Ball, as the widowís love interest, surprises us again and again, as he suggests comedy while, in fact, he delivers stark sobriety. Ball shifts emotional directions without ever signaling the change and, as he does so, he never lets us lose our way. Sarah Dodd is the most grounded of the characters, though this in no way should imply that she is less interesting a character or less skilled an actor. Her sparring match with Reid is one of many high points of the production and her agility with emotional juggling is as well-tuned as her colleagues. Ian D. Clark supports the playwrightís punch line without surrendering himself in the process. His is a quiet and comfortable performance. In the intimacy of the Tarragon Main Space, Clarkís work is both telling and poignant. Dean Paul Gibson, as the son, is earnest and, in the most dramatic moments, deeply affecting. But he is not convincing throughout. His physical stumbling about and his stuttering remain stage bound. His overwrought nature takes time to establish itself and his abrupt mood swings donít astonish us as they should.

Humble Boy is a production to see for many reasons, not the least of them as an opportunity to experience actors who are at their peak in an ensemble that has brought them there.

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