OCTOBER 2022 | Volume 220
What a smart play Benevolence is. In this post-COVID fall season when, it seems, every other company has opted for comedy, Ruby Slippers’ production, presented by Pacific Theatre, takes on serious ethical issues in a theatrically dynamic way. And it’s very funny, too.
The English-language premiere of Quebecker Fanny Britt’s 2012 Governor-General’s Award-winning play gets a clear colloquial translation from Leanne Brodie and crisp, rhythmic direction from Diane Brown. In the snug confines of Pacific Theatre with its tiny alley stage, the power of the characters’ anguish feels, at times, almost visceral.
The anguish is shared, but takes very different forms. Gilles Jean (Charlie Gallant), who addresses the audience directly, is a lawyer in an upscale Montreal firm.He returns in his Porsche to his ironically named hometown of Benevolence, Quebec, for the first time in 17 years, where he’s greeted by his former best friend Bruno (Chris Lam) and his radical lefty union-activist mother (Beatrice Zeilinger), who thinks he’s just a sleazy moneygrubbing lawyer.She may be right. As he says, “My mother hates money. I love it.” He disappoints her, and Bruno, too.
Bruno and his wife Isabelle (Stephanie Wong) are in despair because their four-year-old son fell from the treehouse that Bruno built for him (cleverly suggested via John Webber’s set and lighting). Because the ambulance took an hour to arrive, he’s now in a coma. Bruno blames himself, but they have sued the ambulance’s sub-contractor and hope to use the money to pay for the child’s care, perhaps for the rest of his life.
But Gilles works for the law firm representing the ambulance company, and Bruno knows why Gilles has returned to Benevolence. There are many twists and turns in Gilles’ relationship to the case—some revealed in flashbacks between him and the senior lawyer who is his boss (Paul Moniz de Sà)—and in the other characters’ understanding of that relationship. Those are spoilers I won’t reveal.
Suffice to say that Bruno, Isabelle and Gilles’ mother go through a number of ups and downs in regard to Gilles’ apparent role. Bruno loves Gilles, and his feelings are equally strong when he thinks that Gilles has betrayed them and when he thinks Gilles might save them. Bruno is Gilles’ touchstone when it comes to goodness, to benevolence.
But Gilles is the dramatic centre of the play. While he conceals the truth from the others, or tries to, his speeches to the audience are confessional. He’s in crisis because he knows better than Bruno and Isabelle how horrible their situation is, he knows how much he’s implicated in it, how cowardly he really is, and how incapable of doing the right thing. His dead father (Moniz de Sà again) appears to him “only when I’m about to do something horrendous,” and repeats his personal mantra: “When you love, you’ve gotta leave.” And Gilles’ impulse, like his father’s, is to flee.
At only 80 minutes without intermission, Benevolenceis intense, packed with a range of personal and ethical conundrums. Gallant is very good at showing Gilles’ self-laceration, although he may have had a little too much adrenaline on opening night. Zeilinger is very funny and Moniz de Sà does a nice job giving life to his two-dimensional characters. Wong has her moments but her Isabelle is more sad sack than tragic maternal figure.
Lam’s Bruno is a jewel of a performance, the still centre around which everything revolves. His looks speak as clearly as his words, which are often cutting and bitterly funny. His quiet goodness lacerates Gilles as much as Gilles’ own failures do.The script takes a bizarre twist at the end, which I won’t reveal, and which I’m not sure it needed. In any case, this first-rate drama certainly leaves you thinking.
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews