Performance Works, Granville Island
A few years ago Ruby Slippers scored brilliantly with The Leisure Society, a tragicomic Québecois play about the sterility of the modern family, directed by Diane Brown and starring Colleen Wheeler in a lacerating performance as a woman driven to madness by the humiliating ineptitude of her husband and the life she’s doomed to live.
Now the same team brings us another Québecois play (different playwright) about the horrors visited by a banal bourgeois family upon one of its members, played again by Colleen Wheeler, who lacerates us yet again. But this time neither the play nor production evokes the kind of horrifying look into the heart of darkness next door that The Leisure Society provides. The ironically titled Life Savers did make me want to go home and slit my wrists, but without much revelation or aesthetic pleasure along the way.
Wheeler plays France, a woman imprisoned for a murder she at first can’t remember having committed. Haggard, without make-up, in an orange prison jumpsuit or ratty jeans and a top, chain-smoking roll-yer-owns or staring vacantly at the TV, France seems to be from another world—and another play—than her family. She’s visited in prison separately by her uptight sister (Naomi Wright), her proper mother (Patti Allan), and jokester dad (Kevin McNulty), who also host her at family dinners along with her grandma (Wendy Morrow Donaldson), brother-in-law (Mike Wasco), and aunt (Deborah Williams).
Embarrassed and annoyed by their prodigal relative, the family members yammer on in lengthy, banal conversations about their kids and hockey, the Florida condo and golf, patently ignoring France while she dies inside. Most heavily ironic are the dinner table conversations about 9/11 and the poor people who suffered so terribly, while they can’t spare a moment’s empathy for their own sister/ daughter/ grandchild suffering so terribly alongside them.
Wheeler is such a powerful actor. And sure enough, when France bangs up against the shiny, jocular, impenetrable surfaces of her family long enough, she explodes in a hysteria of frustration and need. She just “wants to live” like everyone else, but we can see that there will be no room for her at all in that world. The power of Wheeler’s performance is mitigated by the fact that the murder France apparently committed and another death that sets up the play’s ending take place offstage and involve characters we never meet. They come to us only as exposition so we have no emotional investment in them or first-hand dramatic experience of France’s inner torment.
In contrast to Wheeler’s extremely naturalistic performance the other characters come off as shiny plastic people in a Québecois comedy of manners. Only once do their two solitudes really connect, right near the end when the father, played superbly by McNulty, suddenly turns on France with all the rage the family seems to have stored up against her. “Don’t you fuck up again or we’ll cut you off,” he barks at her. Wow, I thought, wouldn’t that be a blessing.