MRS. DEXTER & HER DAILY
Nicola Cavendish and Fiona Reid are two of Canada’s very best actors. It’s a privilege to watch them at work, and that’s the only reason to see the premiere of Joanna McClelland Glass’s new play at the Stanley, Mrs. Dexter and Her Daily. What a terrible shame that we don’t get to see these remarkable women perform together. Glass has constructed her two-character play as separate monologues so Cavendish and Reid are never on stage at the same time until their curtain call. But that’s the least of the problems with this script and Marti Maraden’s Arts Club-National Arts Centre co-production.
Glass specializes in dramatizing women’s stories and has done so very well in plays like Play Memory, If We Are Women, and Trying. Here she gives us a day in the life of two ordinary/extraordinary 65-year-old women in the large kitchen (Pam Johnson’s set stretched across the Stanley stage) of an upper-middle class Toronto home. Cavendish plays Peggy Randall, the maid who comes in every day to cook and clean for the matron, Reid’s Mrs. Edith Dexter. Mrs. Dexter is coping with the trauma of her banker husband’s having recently left her for the widow next door, and Peggy is about to give her notice and move back in with the ne’er-do-well who fathered her four children so she can get out of social housing. These are the situations around which their monologues revolve. There is no plot to speak of.
Peggy is a tough, uneducated Nova Scotian who has had a difficult life but maintains a sunny disposition (“There’s always someone worse off than me” is her motto) as she rambles around Mrs. D’s house, doing the laundry, cleaning the glassware, making lunch and fixing an electric fan while she tells the audience her life story and Mrs. D’s, and tries to remember all her chores. Cavendish plays the role with her usual delightful gusto, emphatic delivery, and marvellous ability to turn a simple declarative sentence into a gut-splitting comic line. But despite the East Coast accent and the odd vivid description (Mr. Dexter is “handsome enough to melt the lard off your bones”), Peggy’s monologue is pretty prosaic. And so is the stage business. The daily chores we see her do have a kind of workaday dignity, but running real water and even rewiring an electric fan so that it works (cue the applause) aren’t especially dramatic to watch. The act feels long, and then comes intermission, and only then does Mrs. Dexter arrive on stage.
Educated Mrs. D’s monologue is better written and Reid is fabulous, sloshing back the whiskey and toasting to “fermentation, distillation and maturation.” She’s bawdy and feisty, calling one neighbour “Missy Pissy” and another, the one who stole her husband, “the rodent.” She also offers a very funny, boozy, sceptical commentary on religion. And all the while we see her barely suppressing the panic that threatens to well up and overwhelm her. But this act, like the first, goes on too long and has no real dramatic shape.
The monologue format of the play seems bizarre and almost perverse in places. During Peggy’s monologue, Mrs. Dexter sits outside in the garden. Director Maraden has placed the offstage garden behind the upstage wall so each of the many times Cavendish goes to the door to yell out to Mrs. Dexter, she’s talking to the back of the set while the voice of the invisible Reid yells back at her. Why doesn’t Maraden make Mrs. Dexter visible to us, or at least place her stage left or right so Cavendish wouldn’t have to upstage herself so much? Better yet, why wouldn’t Glass just write Mrs. Dexter into the scene onstage? What I found even more annoying were the many one-sided phone calls first Peggy then Mrs. Dexter make. There can’t be anything less dramatically engaging for an audience than watching a character talk on the telephone to an invisible neighbour, merchant, landlord or daughter.
These two wonderful actors and their potentially interesting characters—how many plays feature two 65-year-old women?—deserve a much better vehicle to bring them together.