Lucia Frangione is one of our most consistently interesting playwrights (and a fine actor), and it’s a treat to see her new work escape the ghetto of Pacific Theatre’s awkward basement stage onto the expanses of the Stanley. Paradise Garden has many of the hallmarks of Frangione’s best work: it’s intellectually and theologically sophisticated with a strong dose of eroticism and a nice sense of humour. But like so much of the new work made possible by funding from the Cultural Olympiad, it’s just not quite ready for prime time. It’s a lot closer than many of the other new plays brought to the stage in the past two months to meet Olympic deadlines. But the second act desperately needs a substantial edit and the design requires a major re-think.
The play is an unapologetic romance shot through with fascinating issues of art, ethnicity and religion. The main character, Day (Kevin MacDonald), a literature student struggling to find himself, lives on the Gulf Island family estate of his estranged parents, wacky mom Jean (Gina Chiarelli) and dope-dealing hippie redneck dad Keith (Michael Kopsa). Living in the other half of their subdivided big old house is a highly educated immigrant family from Turkey. The mother, Ergul (Marie Stillin), is dying of cancer. Strict, conservative father Mustafa (Richard Newman) keeps a close eye on grown daughter Layla (Frangione), who has angered him by leaving a promising medical career to train as an art conservator. Odd couple Day and Layla fall in love, a romance complicated when Day’s girlfriend Kaylee (Meghan Gardiner) gets pregnant and has a child.
Layla’s family is much more interesting than Day’s and all three actors give stellar performances. They are secular Muslims trying to figure out how to balance traditional faith and rational living, a struggle made particularly poignant and urgent by Ergul’s impending death. They also have extensive arguments about the proper function and value of art—which I enjoyed, but which should probably be trimmed from this intellectually top-heavy play. The art theme really gets out of hand in the second act, where new plotlines develop every few minutes, characters we thought we’d never see again come on for encores, and passing years get summed up in overly poetic narrative sequences.
Besides the overwriting, Morris Ertman’s production suffers from a set that lacks the resonance the play requires of it. As the title suggests, the garden outside the house is highly symbolic. Ted Roberts’ set is dominated by a huge gnarled white tree, split up the middle. Maybe that split will be healed and the fallen Eden restored to its paradisal state by the union of our hero and heroine. But we’re also told many times of the garden’s symmetry, its division into four symbolically significant segments; we’re told about particular elements of its vegetation that assume importance for various characters. But we see none of that on this set.
I liked this piece a lot. It’s thoughtful and intelligent with excellent performances and a compelling central relationship. The script could afford to lose a couple of characters, a couple of plotlines, and about 20 minutes of the second act. Then it would be paradise indeed.