Great Canadian Theatre Company’s season opens with Beth Graham’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, a tightly focused look at the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s on a contemporary family and the relationships between its respective members. The tight focus is both a strength and weakness, if only because the script is perhaps a little too self-referential.
Bernice Trimble is, first and foremost, a memory play: Iris Trimble, daughter of the title character, assembles a casserole in her kitchen to help her take her mind off the awful thing she has to do very soon. In the meantime, she narrates the story of how her widowed 59-year old mother announces her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and, subsequently, the plan she concocts to retain her dignity. The plot revolves more around Iris’ perspective of the situation as the only one of Bernice’s children in whom she first confides her secret plan.
The other siblings figure only minimally in the plot, mostly to give their respective reactions to Bernice’s situation and react to Iris’ somewhat privileged status within their family circle. Sarah, the excessively self-centred and high-strung older sister (played to her annoying extreme by Manon St-Jules) and Peter (Adrien Pyke), the awkward younger brother whose laconic nature provides some comic relief, are entertaining parts of the story but not the most dramatically necessary since their reactions to Bernice’s situation have no effect whatsoever on what she eventually decides to do. For this reason I wonder if the script would be stronger if only Iris and Bernice appeared onstage, albeit then the style of the play would significantly change. Whether or not playwright Beth Graham chooses to explore this route is a textual matter, but it is difficult to separate the text from the rest of the production, if only because the text anticipates its own production in a way that risks limiting its own staging possibilities.
Let me explain: as a memory play, the entire show works around Iris telling the audience a story, though the characters in that story do physically appear onstage as part of the experience. Iris assembles her casserole in her own kitchen, but since the main location in the story she tells is her mother’s kitchen, she devises a technique to separate her kitchen, in real time, from her mother’s during the frequent flashback scenes – a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers on the table whose presence/absence indicate which kitchen we’re watching in any given scene. This technique in itself has nothing against it, but the manner in which the text establishes it – Iris literally tells the audience how this staging technique is going to work before the first flashback scene – rather underestimates the spectators, as least as I see it.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot going for this production, despite the problems of the (still fairly new) text. Director Adrienne Wong has given GCTC a production that embraces newer perspectives on theatre while ignoring some older clichés of staging. There’s still a fair amount of realism in the staging, but every now and then a more abstract touch occurs – Iris talks on the phone to Bernice and Sarah several times, but there is no telephone on set, only spotlights that indicate the physical separation of the characters. It’s a small but significant touch, and somewhat stronger than the occasional freezing of the other characters mid-scene when Iris interrupts her own story to comment on it to the audience. Additionally Wong has employed a colour-blind casting technique, which works wonderfully on two levels: it allows the best actor for the role to be cast regardless of who else is being considered for other parts, and it allows the family presented onstage to represent the contemporary Canadian family, which beautifully fits in with GCTC’s mandate.
The actors all give good performances, though some roles are definitely meatier than others. Rachelle Casseus’ Iris at first seems a little one-note – too calm for what she’s telling us – but as the story unfolds and her character’s personality is established as the strong one of the three siblings, the choice makes so much more sense. As the performer who delivers at least 80% of the lines in the play, Casseus rises to the occasion.
As the stubbornly independent matriarch Bernice, Deena Aziz offers a performance in which it always seems like she wants to say more – but then again the character is a diplomatic mother who would rather have peace between her children over complete openness. This quality to Aziz’s performance can mostly be seen in her facial expressions, which also betray the confusion Bernice feels during the character’s increasingly frequent slips from reality.
St-Jules, as Sarah, has chosen to wholeheartedly embrace a truly awful (yet depressingly realistic) character as the young mother whose entire life revolves around her never-seen infant daughter. It might be a little too much – especially during the parts when Sarah demands that her mother get a second medical opinion, then worries that her mother’s passed on the Alzheimer’s to her, and then her infuriating blowout at Bernice’s plan – but at the very least it does help us to understand why Bernice chooses not to confide in her eldest. Pyke, as Peter, has the challenge of trying to create a memorable character with less than 10 minutes of dialogue in a nearly 2-hour show, but he works his timing and tone well enough to give some comic relief to an otherwise fairly heavy show.
The tight focus of the script, which very is much on the relationships between the individual characters, is reflected in the set: a simple yet fragmented kitchen in an egg shape, with a crown of window and picture frames hovering above like the cosmos to which the text frequently alludes, in the middle of a stage otherwise black (there are some grey walls in the background, but their colour doesn’t seem to indicate we’re supposed to pay any attention to them). The crown is beautiful, with a few panels lighting up every now and then as if to put this story into perspective; the cosmos continues to swirl regardless of your family drama. The kitchen itself is dominated by a round table, at which most of the flashback scenes occur. The set helps to pinpoint the amalgamation of memory play and kitchen sink drama that Bernice Trimble embodies through these two elements, a collaboration that has its issues – a very realistic form (the flashback scenes are staged very realistically) colliding with a non-realistic form (Iris telling us her story) – mostly due to the inclusion of the sibling characters whose physical presence seems dramatically unnecessary.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble offers one look at an issue that has affected many, many people in different ways. The production is fairly strong while the text has some problems – perhaps this could be attributed to the newness of quite a few members of the cast and production team who have never worked at Great Canadian Theatre Company before, but at the same time the infusion of new talent indicates that Ottawa is in for an exciting season from this company.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble
Written by Beth Graham
A Great Canadian Theatre Company production
At Great Canadian Theatre Company
September 22-October 9, 2016
Curtain 8pm, running time approximately 115 minutes without intermission
Directed by Adrienne Wong
Stage Management by Laurie Champagne
Set and Props Design by John Doucet
Costume Design by Vanessa Imeson
Sound Design by Simon Labelle
Lighting Design by Chantal Labonté
Assistant Stage Manager: Jane Vanstone Osborn
Starring, in alphabetical order: Deena Aziz, Rachelle Casseus, Adrien Pyke, Manon St-Jules