by Elliott Hayes
6500 Gilbert Rd., Richmond
Harold Pinter has just won the Nobel Prize for writing darkly funny, nasty English family plays like The Caretaker and The Homecoming. From Edward Albee to Sam Shepard, the modern American theatre has reveled in the bleak comedy that lurks behind living room walls. Watching Michel Tremblay’s plays about Quebec families, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The dark family comedy entertains by showing us familiar types and situations, at the same time revealing powerful truths about our most essential social institution. It has generated no shortage of modern masterpieces. Elliott Hayes’ Homeward Bound is definitely not one of them.
Middle class retirees Bonnie (Christine Willes) and Glen (John Wright) have invited their adult children home to tell them some shocking news. Unhappy daughter Norris (Elizabeth McLaughlin) has come with husband Kevin (Raugi Yu) and their young twins. Gay son Nick (Todd Thomson) will be joined by his partner, Guy (Zaib Shaikh).
Amid much drinking of brandy and champagne, the parents will disclose a secret involving death and the daughter two secrets involving sex—her second one especially contrived. Not much comes of any of the revelations. Debates about euthanasia and overwritten monologues on middle-class complacency and personal detachment offer little insight into these phenomena or the characters, none of whom seems particularly real.
Oddly named Norris dominates the stage with her anger, obnoxiously finding fault and picking fights with everyone, especially her brother. She’s trapped in a horrible, disintegrating marriage, and her scenes with husband Kevin are vicious. But it’s hard to care because neither McLaughlin nor Yu gives us anything in their characters to like, while Thomson, an excellent actor, seems physically uncomfortable as Nick.
The parents, meanwhile, coast blithely along, reading magazines and doing crosswords while the arguments rage. Wright’s Glen dryly slips in a few good zingers and Willes’ Bonnie has the play’s best line: “If you’re going to take your parents’ deaths personally, you’re going to be very unhappy.”
Trying to decide who should go see if there’s a skunk in the garage is as chaotic for these characters as creating an Iraqi constitution. But such inspired comic moments are rare. Many of the laughs come from a running gag about a coat.
Director Simon Johnston solves few of the play’s problems and his designers left me puzzled by unmotivated lighting changes, awkward costume pieces, and ambiguous sound effects. I did like Bryan Pollock’s striking set with its painted backdrop of hundreds of books, fading off into oblivion at the edges.