Michele Riml’s latest two-hander, Souvenirs, is by turns contrived and perceptive, powerful and unaffecting. Aplay about a first-generation immigrant father and his fully assimilated but deeply unhappy daughter, it presents a virtual checklist of clichés from the immigrant parent/alienated, Canadianized child genre so vividly parodied in Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil. Fortunately, some of the writing and its two performances are compelling enough to keep the audience engaged even through the overwritten, overwrought second act.
The play opens with 16-year-old Maggie (Rachel Aberle) dropping in unexpectedly on her father, Gustav (Ron Lea), in his isolated rural cabin (nicely rendered in Brian Perchaluk’s woodsy set). Maggie is all nerves as she offers lame reasons for being there, away from Mom with whom she lives in the city, who is estranged from Gustav, in part at least because Mom couldn’t stand the isolation of the place. Gustav has Big Dreams of turning his lakefront property into a resort. Meanwhile, he survives by making cheesy souvenirs that he sells to tourists.
After a few false starts and fake-outs, stern but loving Gustav learns the real reason why Maggie has come, and he keeps her there by shooting out the tires of her boyfriend’s car that brought her there from the city. Then we get to hear his story, too—about the banker he needs to lend him the money to build his dream, about his mother’s secret past in Communist Czechoslovakia, and about his own medical condition, about which I can say no more. All this, plus his real concern for his daughter’s health, welfare, and happiness, cranks up the dramatic tension on his side as high as it is on hers, the product of profound teen angst in a kid with divorced parents.
Director Jennifer Brewin keeps the actors’ anxiety meters on high almost throughout the piece, except when father and daughter smoke dope and giggle together, or in the quiet moments when they confide in each other and connect across the various barriers Riml’s script has carefully manufactured. Although Gustav teeters on the edge of a breakdown almost from the beginning, Lea manages to give him an explosive climax that seems to come genuinely out of love for his daughter. I found myself admiring the actor’s technique—his accent and the stooped shuffle of a broken man who doesn’t realize how broken he is—but the character never felt real to me. He’s more a collection of qualities than a man.
Aberle’s performance is more successful. Lots of credit to the actor, but Riml also has more genuine insight into the anomie and self-loathing of an adolescent girl than she does into an older immigrant male. Riml gives Maggie the one good laugh line in the play. At the end of a lengthy rumination on the difficulties of life in Communist Czechoslovakia, Gustav says, “You never knew who your friends were.” “Sounds like high school,” Maggie deadpans.
More common, though, are lines like “You don’t know me, you’ve never really been my father!” and “What do you want from me, I have nothing for you!”—the stock elements of inter-generational melodrama, of which Souvenirs is a distinctly middle-of-the road example.