Toronto, Mississippi, Joan MacLeod’s first full-length play, put her on the map when it premiered in Toronto in 1987 and then played all across the country. I saw the Touchstone production in 1988 at the Firehall and have been a MacLeod fan ever since. The delightful revival at the Playhouse, directed by Dean Paul Gibson, confirms just what a lovely, funny play it is. It has dated just a little and feels a bit small on that big stage. But it remains a fascinating snapshot of the mores of the era, a moving examination of “disability,” and a fabulous vehicle for a young actress. In this case Meg Roe delivers a career-defining performance.
Roe plays 18 year old Jhana, an autistic girl who lives in Toronto with her schoolteacher mother, Maddie (Colleen Wheeler), and their boarder, Bill (Alessandro Juliani), a grad student poet. On the cusp of adulthood but with the mental and verbal skills of a child, Jhana practices reciting her name and address under Maddie’s tutelage (in case she gets lost on the bus she takes to her life-skills workshop) and Bill drills her on dialling 911. Bill also role-plays dating exercises with her because Jhana seems to have a crush on a boy at workshop. Maddie is terrified that someone will take advantage of her. Bill encourages Jhana to try to be as “normal” as possible.
The wild card in the plot is Jhana’s father, King (William MacDonald), a professional Elvis-impersonator estranged from Maddie. When a tour brings him back to Toronto, the chemistry of the household completely changes. He’s the romantic bad-boy—he specializes in the leather-clad, hip-swivelling young Elvis—and Jhana adores him. So does Maddie, still, though she abhors his irresponsibility. A series of triangles develops: King and Maddie compete for Jhana’s affections; so do King and Bill, who has become her surrogate father. And the two men also compete over Maddie. The climax and resolution of these conflicts happen a little too quickly and glibly. But the epilogue that follows—Jhana, wearing King’s Elvis cape, imagining herself on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens—offers one of the most brilliant performance moments I can recall in a Vancouver theatre.
Maddie is a tightly-wound, unhappy woman overly protective of her daughter, and for the most part Wheeler plays that one note. But towards the end she manages to make her concern for Jhana first quietly moving and then explosively powerful. Juliani slightly overplays Bill in the opposite direction, making him mannered, forcing his jokiness and drunkenness, as if he were not just compensating for Maddie’s uptightness but competing with King’s staginess, too. Juliani settles down after a while and manages to find just the right fit between his own natural charm and Bill’s.
MacDonald’s Elvis-worshipping King is dynamite. He makes his performance sequences homages rather than parodies. And MacDonald carries over the body language and attitude into the character of King himself. He clearly loves his daughter and his wife but it’s a struggle to have a normal domestic life when you’re carrying an obsession with a dead, charismatic celebrity.
And Roe, oh my. Her Jhana is all twitches and hyper-energy. MacLeod has written her dialogue full of curious rhythms and repetitions. For instance, before King arrives, Maddie suggests to her that she act grown up and say “Dad” rather than “Daddy.” For the rest of the show Jhana refers to her father as “Daddy say Dad.” There’s not a moment when you don’t believe that she is this kid, working so hard to make sense of her world, struggling with the difficult transition into womanhood with the special obstacles she’s been given. Roe never sentimentalizes the character, either. It’s a wonderful performance, capped by that magnificent, devastating Maple Leaf Gardens monologue at the end.
Cameron Porteus’ domestic interior set seems just a little too upscale for these folks. Anna-Maria Steger’s pop-tune soundtrack is nicely evocative, except for the jarring musical intro to the epilogue. Apart from these few wrong notes, this show rocks.