Monday, September 19, 2011

Only Drunks... makes you think, question and reflect

by Andrew Juhl

Anamosa - There’s a reason I haven’t watched Million Dollar Baby yet, despite the fact that I’ve owned the DVD for several years. I know the story will depress me, and I have to be in the mood to see a story that I know will depress me. Sure, it probably has some funny and happy moments—even the saddest of movies usually do—but I’m just not in the mindset where I want to be depressed all that often.

A depressing chapter in Canadian history provides the fodder Canadian playwright Drew Hayden Taylor’s Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. Generations of aboriginal Canadians were devastated by their government’s attempts to “assimilate” the native children into mainstream Canadian culture, most often by placing them with white families and in residential schools. As a result, languages and cultures have been lost, some never to be recovered, as thousands of children were taken from their families. Taylor, himself part Ojibway (the same culture at the heart of this play, in itself a sequel to Someday), attempts to use a little bit of laughter as medicine to heal some of those emotional wounds. But a little bit of laughter in this production is a little bit too little, I’m afraid.

Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth is chiefly concerned with the story of Janice (Mary Vizecky), who was raised by a white family after being removed from the reservation where she was born. Now a successful lawyer in Toronto, Janice—still called ‘Grace’ by her birth family—is unexpectedly visited by her sister (Carolann Beaulne), her sister's fiancée (Alex Smalley), and a friend (Basilio Light) with news that Janice’s birth mother has died. As the three visitors attempt to persuade Janice to fulfill tradition and to return to their reservation to pay her respects, Janice is forced to reflect on questions about her identity and the nature of family.

Actress Carolann Beualne (Barb, the main character’s sister) shifted repeatedly between maintaining an awkward tension and guilting Janice beyond measure. While she was enjoyable to watch at times, her character wears on the audience well before intermission, due in no small part to her endless capacity to putatively foist guilt on her sister. “Yes. We get it. You think your sister is a bitch for not coming home,” says the audience in a collective sigh after the issue comes up for the umpteenth time in the first act.

Alex Smalley’s portrayal of Rodney, Barb’s fiancée, was enjoyable, thought perhaps played a little too cartoonishly. Rodney has the bulk of the jokes-written-to-be-obvious-jokes in the play, and Smalley could definitely relax a little and let the writing shoulder more of the effort.

Basilio Light (Tonto) plays his yeoman-like character with a natural ease. Far-too-intelligent by half, Tonto is the emotional anchor and continuous voice of reason in the play; and while Light nailed his delivery of several steely (if wizened) platitudes, that same Yoda-esque delivery perfused the vast majority of the rest of his lines, lending a repeated, inorganic quality to what should have been ordinary conversations.

Mary Vizecky turns in a serviceable Janice/Grace, but her performance somewhat suffers from what I like to call “the 75-cent syndrome.” When she’s angry about something, she seems roughly three-quarters as angry as she should be. Three-quarters as surprised, three-quarters as amused, three-quarters as sad, three-quarters as interesting as her character could have been. Even as Vizecky delivers the bulk of the last and perhaps most moving scene of the play, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Quit it. Quit holding back. Let us have it. Quit worrying about the next line and just let us see the character—not you trying to remember the character.”

Director Rick Sanborn keeps the play to a tight two hours (with intermission) and the spartan stage, props, and costuming are all done well. It’s a powerful play: one that will make you think, one that will make you the question policies and actions of whatever Big Brother, one that will make you reflect on the nature of family, and—yes, occasionally—one that will make you laugh a little. If you’re in the mood for it, Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth is a good evening at a small-town community theatre.

And if you’re not in the mood for it, there are several bars within short walking distance of the marquee.

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