by Carol Shields and Sara Cassidy, adapted from the novel by Carol Shields
Arts Club Theatre at the Stanley
March 31 - May 1

This stage production of Carol Shields’ final novel would seem like a match made in heaven. A moving meditation on goodness, grief, mothers and daughters, Unless was adapted by Shields herself and her daughter, Sara Cassidy. The superb Nicola Cavendish stars as the distraught yet hopeful mother, Reta Winters, with the Belfry’s sure-handed Roy Surette directing. As a co-production of the Arts Club and Toronto’s CanStage, Unless has no shortage of resources and talent behind it. So why does so much of this show go so wrong?

There are really two plays here. One is a gem, a simple two-hander: mother and daughter in their separate solitudes. Reta, a comic novelist married to a doctor, tells us her story and that of her eldest daughter who dropped out of university without explanation to live on the street. Norah (Celine Stubel) sits silently at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst, holding a sign that says “Goodness.”

Cavendish is mesmerizing, relishing Shields’ writerly language but speaking it like a real person. She paints a complex portrait of Reta who once knew “the useful monotony of happiness” but now hangs on by a thread, trying to write a silly novel and live a normal life, yet desperate to reclaim her lost daughter. Cavendish can put a hilarious spin on the simplest line with the turn of a wrist or a slight inflection. It’s shocking to watch her face, lit by a happy memory, collapse as she suddenly remembers Norah.

Mostly sitting quietly in a pool of light, Stubel is radiant as Norah. We hear her once in flashback, disturbed and on the verge of breakdown, explaining her overwhelming love and concern for everything. In the most powerful, horrible scene, Reta tries to drag her off the street as Norah screams in resistance. The revelation of her motive is moving when it comes, though it resolves both novel and play somewhat suddenly.

Then there’s the second play, overwritten, over-produced, and over-acted. The stage is busy with a variety of characters, organic to the novel, who mostly get in the way here—Reta’s friends, her younger daughters, a chorus of commentators. This is clearest near the end, with the revelation literally in sight, in a lengthy, unnecessary, momentum-killing scene between Reta’s editor (Michael Spencer-Davis) and her mother-in-law (Nicola Lipman).

Director Surette overuses Brian Perchaluk’s techno-heavy set, upstaging the story. Screens raise and lower, Tim Matheson’s projections come and go, and a revolve moves characters and furniture constantly on and off stage like a Jetsons cartoon. The acting is often cartoonish too, rightly in Reta’s amusing novel-in-progress but annoying otherwise. Tara Hughes is particularly guilty of playing cartoon style when realism is needed. Allan Morgan as Reta’s husband and Elizabeth Saunders in multiple roles manage to avoid overkill.

The old adage that less is more has never seemed so pertinent.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday, April 24, 2005 9:34 PM
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