— Mike Gill, Jillian Fargey, Erla Faye, Derek Metz, Colleen Wheeler and Mike Wasko by Len Grinke Photography.
SINCE YOU LEFT US
Actress Susinn McFarlen’s first play is a bruising black comedy that presents a broken, dysfunctional family beset by alcoholism. And it’s funny as hell.
The combination of high drama and broad farce succeeds—for the most part—due to some sharp writing by McFarlen, Amiel Gladstone’s crisp direction, and a first-rate cast. The amazing Colleen Wheeler, in particular, makes things work that have no right to work in a serious stage presentation.
Fanny (Jillian Fargey) has flown to Vancouver from Toronto to find her teenage son Danno (Mike Gill), who has left home to stay with Fanny’s sister Denny (Wheeler). Denny and Fanny’s mother Dolly (Erla Faye Forsyth), celebrating her 70th birthday, drives both her daughters crazy, and we soon see why. She’s an embarrassing foulmouthed drunk whose boyfriend Chuck (Derek Metz)—also a drunk—is best friends with her son, Mike (Mike Wasko).
Fanny is struggling to hang onto her rebellious son, Denny is an emotional mess fixated on her dying dog, and mom—well, Dolly may be a terrible mother but she’s a free spirit who, besides soused-out-of-his-mind Chuck, is the only character in the play who really enjoys her life.
Denny’s home (Pam Johnson’s white transparent-walled set is reminiscent of the classic design for Death of a Salesman) becomes a battlefield where the family members insult and scream at each other. It also becomes the site of a bizarrely comic death and two even more bizarre funerals. Shades of Joe Orton.
There’s a lot of really smart stuff here. Fanny, a single mother and motivational speaker, has written a book called Girlfriends Are the New Husbands. The comedy and drama don’t always sit comfortably together, and the play turns sharply melodramatic in a confrontation/revelation scene between Fanny and Dolly near the end. But the three women’s relationships always seem powerfully real.
What remains most vivid to me is the intensity of Denny’s love and grief for her dying Jack Russell (played by a stuffed animal). The anguish on Wheeler’s face is painful to watch. It would be hard to imagine another actor selling such over-the-top emotion, committing so fully to making what might otherwise be simply ludicrous deeply funny. It’s an outrageous, delicious performance.
This is a very nice playwriting debut for McFarlen, herself a terrific actor.