Review: For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (York Theatre, Feb. 20)

Do you ever long so intensely to speak to a loved one who has passed on? Can you remember with precision various conversations you have had with her, perhaps where you acted in a manner you regret? Do you wish you could have done something better, something that was not in your power to do for her then–to replay certain moments differently?

These sentiments underlie Michel Tremblay’s For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, which serves as a tribute to his imaginative, voluble, expansively emotional, and incredibly loving mother. Like her, he is “melodramatic”.

The play opens by referring to dozens of plays with heroic and royal themes, such as Hamlet, Caligula, King Lear, and so forth. This play is not any of those, the narrator makes clear. Instead, the narrator replays five conversations he had with his mother, from the age of 10 to the age of 20. Some biographical details differ, but clearly Tremblay has a close affinity with the narrator, who sits in his chair while his mother irons, and cooks, and gesticulates, and serves him food and drink, all the while carrying on fascinating conversations with her son.

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A housewife in working-class east end Montreal in the 1950s typically did not have expansive cultural and educational opportunities, but Nana (the mother) has a sharp, questioning, intelligent mind. She is enthralled with drama. Her focus is historically based, but pulpy, French novels and television serials. Never is there any doubt that the Narrator and his mother intensely love each other, even as they dispute details such as how an unfortunate French heroine might have survived a winter in a dungeon filled with water, or when the 18-year-old Narrator tries to escape a painful dinner with their extended family, and so forth.

This play could be a tearjerker, and in fact is is, but there is sufficient substance to prevent it from feeling like just another melodrama. The mother is no saint, but demonstrates caustic, sarcastic humor tinged with unkindness. She is afraid, so afraid, of many things, despite the bravado she continually demonstrates.

Margo Kane is an actor with worldwide renown, and I was thrilled to have the chance to actually see her (I saw her in a talkback after an Aboriginal-themed play last month, and I had also seen her work on YouTube, but this was my first chance to see her live on stage. She is comedic in word and presence and gesture all at once, but manages the segueways into sadness and fear seamlessly.

I have seen Kevin Loring, who plays the Narrator, before, but I am experiencing an embarrassing blank as to what production (which often happens to me, perhaps because good actors embody the roles they are doing, and often are not easily recognized as the same person from role to role, or from role to real life). He mostly sits in his chair, as he acts out the conversations with his mother, and he is a master of small, expressive gestures. The chemistry between Kane and Loring is utterly believable.

The set is simple and well-executed. The simple family home, and the Narrator’s study are well-integrated.

So many writers seem driven by a lack of parental love, but Michel Tremblay has made clear that despite his family’s poverty and numerous children, he was very much planned, wanted, and loved, a circumstance of his life that is very clear in the play.

The Talking Stick Festival showcases Aboriginal performing arts. Michel Tremblay’s plays are typically set in east end working-class Montreal of the 1950s and 1960s. The link may not seem clear. But, in my opinion, there are at least two aspects to this choice of play for an Aboriginal festival: 1) In this play, the mother refers to her Cree forebears, and she was herself born on the plains of Saskatchewan, 2) The mother-son experience is about the oldest story imaginable and resonates across every culture. I saw Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway in conversation last fall at the Vancouver Writers Fest, and they were fascinating, each demonstrating tremendous respect for the other.

This was also my first chance to see the York Theatre after its reopening. I am thrilled to have another comfortable, well-appointed, mid-sized venue in Vancouver.

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