Late “February” review from The Strand

Just published: a wonderful review of February in October issue of University of Toronto newspaper The Strand.  Writer Liza Kobrinsky attended the matinee on September 23, which was followed by Talkback with director, cast, and author/playwright Lisa Moore.

The URL is kinda wonky, so I’ll just paste the full review here:

February at the Alumnae Theatre

By Liza Kobrinsky

“The Ocean Ranger began to sink on Valentine’s Day, 1982, and was gone by dawn the next day. Every man on it died. Helen was 30 in 1982. Cal was 31.”

When I first heard about the Alumnae Theatre’s production of Lisa Moore’s novel February, I was wary. I wondered: could she put that sorrowing, liv­ing story on stage? As it happens, she could.

With the help of the play’s talented director, Mi­chelle Alexander, Moore has adapted her much-loved 2010 novel into a moving piece of theatre. The story tells of a widowed mother, Helen, living with the death of her husband Cal nearly 30 years after he died in the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. Meandering through flashback, the script blurs decades of Helen’s life, bringing Cal in and out of the present day—a guiding ghost. The play also highlights the life of Helen and Cal’s son, John, who despite having left his home and moved on, is clearly still struggling with his father’s death. Helen and John’s stories are interwoven through echoing dialogue which mimics the subtle parallelism of their two lives in Moore’s novel.

The set is bare: a few chairs, a derrick off an oil rig juts out of the stage, piled with baggage and house­hold things. Blue lights fall on Helen and John talk­ing over the phone: she in St. John’s, he in an airport in Singapore. The dialogue is achingly human, nu­anced with a slight accent. Michelle Alexander’s stag­ing does what I had doubted the play could do—it offers the kind of closeness felt between people who have shared a tragedy, spotlights isolating a distanced communion. The minimalist set allows for flashback, denying any specific period in time, and by playing with sounds and blocking, Alexander transitions us back and forth in Helen’s life effortlessly yet jarringly, the way a real memory might.

I am in love with the Helen on stage. Lavetta Grif­fin becomes Helen thoroughly, and watching her change from 20 years old and starting a family, to 56 and stood up at a bar, I am completely convinced that she has remained the same person. Newfoundland native Griffin has tapped into whatever it is about the Island’s sensibility that makes Newfoundland stories so incredibly stirring. Griffin’s Helen doesn’t live in total mourning; there is humour and sex and even hope throughout the story—something the play insists on.

Helen’s son John is played both as a child and as an adult by Justin Skye Conley, who somehow lacks the humour so vividly present in Helen. John seems to flounder alone on stage. Skye Conley’s ten-year-old Johnny, dressed in a cape and carrying a red light­saber, just looks like a grown man wearing a sheet. But perhaps that’s exactly what Alexander had in mind.

The rest of the cast fills in the story beautifully. Cal (John Fray) and Helen’s sister Louise (Kathleen Jack­son Allamby) are funny, dark, and add a comforting stability to the circuitous narrative. Nearing the end, Cal delivers a beautiful speech describing the wave that tips the oil rig over. “This wave has been work­ing towards the chewing and swallowing of the world since the beginning of time.” And the audience sadly realizes that it isn’t really Cal’s wave at all, but Helen’s, imagining it for him.

In all, the play offers an experience quite different from the novel. Moore, Alexander, and the cast have brought these people to life; people that I and much of Canada have come to know. The play ends as it be­gins, with a diptych of Helen and John, each sepa­rately having dinner with someone they love, looking out a window. The view out that window is one that seems to be coming together piecemeal through the fabric of new Canadian writers, giving us a very in­timate thread of their part of Canada. February, for its part, gives me St. John’s in a small playhouse in Toronto.

At the talkback after the show, an audience mem­ber quietly says that she grew up across the street from Moore. “I just wanted to say how incredibly proud we are of her.” I look up at Lisa Moore on stage and think, in that presumptuously familiar way you always think of your favourite writers, how very proud I am of her too.

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Filed under 2012/13 Season, February

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