Stage Door Review 2019

Aunt Agnes for Christmas

Dec 16, 2019

✭✭

by Norm Foster, directed by Patricia Vanstone

Norm Foster Theatre Festival & FirstOntario PAC, FirstOntario PAC, St. Catharines

December 13-22, 2019

Melissa: “You’re like Mary Poppins from the dark side”

This year the Foster Festival is presenting its first winter production and its third world premiere by the amazingly prolific Norm Foster. Any writer would be proud to have written this season’s The Writer, a funny but sensitive depiction of a father-son relationship, and the book and lyrics to the witty time-travel musical Beside Myself during a career, let alone during a single year. Foster’s latest play Aunt Agnes for Christmas shows Foster’s breadth in its use of the supernatural, but compared to his other two premieres this year it seems about two drafts away from a final, polished version.

The play begins with a great premise. Two days before Christmas Aunt Agnes (Nora McLellan) shows up announced at the home of Sally (Cosette Derome) and George Trimble (Kelly Wong) in the small town of Whitehaven Bay. Neither Sally nor George even knew they had an Aunt Agnes, but Agnes claims she is George’s aunt by marriage via an impossible-to-follow series of family relations. Too flustered with how to deal with the situation, the couple rush off to work and leave Agnes in charge of their two children – 14-year-old Melissa (Kate Peters) who likes to read, and her young brother Brian (Hayden Neufeld), who says little but likes to dress like Frank Sinatra.

Like many teenagers, Melissa is embarrassed by her parents and can’t wait to move away from her small town where there is nothing to do. Agnes catches Melissa frowning and says that if she does not watch out her face will stay that way. She touches Melissa on the forehead and to Melissa’s consternation, she finds she can’t undo her frown until Agnes touches her again.

This is the first of many incidents of an increasingly marvellous nature that lead Melissa to believe that Aunt Agnes is not really her father’s aunt but some sort of “Mary Poppins from the dark side”. Indeed, after Agnes has persuaded the Trimbles to let her spend Christmas with them, Melissa does read P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins (1934). Foster clearly wants both to acknowledge his inspiration and to cause us to assess how the situation in his play compares to that in Travers’s books (or the 1964 movie that many will know better).

The first key difference is that the home of George and Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins is not a happy one. George is under pressure at the bank where he works and Winifred feels that as a wife she has nothing useful to do. The children, Jane and Michael are disobedient and their nannies never stay for long.

The Trimbles’ home, in contrast, is happy. Sally Trimble is the town’s mayor and George is pleased with having spent 18 years selling RVs. Brian, about whom we know next to nothing, seems happy imitating the looks of famous singers. Only Melissa is out of sorts so there doesn’t seem as much to fix for a visitor with magical powers as there is for Mary Poppins.

The second main difference is that Aunt Agnes is not a prim, tidy and organized like Mary Poppins but loud-mouthed, dressed for comfort and inclined to sleep whenever possible. Mary Poppins never makes snarky remarks or pokes fun at herself as Aunt Agnes is so prone to do.

Because the play begins with George and his wearing his lucky tie in anticipation of getting a raise at work, we think that he will be the focus of the play. As it turns out, the real backbone of the play is the relationship between Melissa and Agnes and how Agnes gradually helps Melissa out of the funk she is in about her family and her town. The question is whether a magical aunt is really necessary to accomplish this. Couldn’t an adult that Melissa felt she could confide in do the same thing?

As for the ending, Agnes’s powers do help make it a merrier Christmas for the town and for the Trimbles, but she does nothing to solve George’s employment problems or anything to help Brian out of his strange phase of imitating other people instead of being himself.

Several odd occurrences go unexplained. Twice George’s lucky tie tries to strangle him. It’s not clear whether this has anything to do with Agnes or whether George is just feeling suffocated with frustration. Agnes herself begins to have dizzy spells. We think this will lead to something, say her having to abandon her powers, but it doesn’t. They don’t even seem related to the exertion she needs to use for some of her larger effects. We would also like to know if Brian’s impersonations of famous singers has any meaning or whether, quite unlike Foster, it’s just a joke for the sake of a joke.

Having introduced a supernatural character, many will likely expect that the show will somehow involve the supernatural in its ending. Foster does supply a surprise ending, but the main surprise is that the supernatural is not involved in its completion.

The Foster Festival has assembled a fine cast for the show. Principal among them is Nora McLellan as Aunt Agnes in her second Foster Festival appearance after her hilarious turn in Renovations for Six. You could hardly find a better person to play an eccentric, wise-cracking aunt than McLellan and she is an absolute joy to watch. The swagger she gives Agnes’s use of magical powers makes her even funnier.

As it turns out the second most important character in the play is Melissa, played with real finesse by 15-year-old Kate Peters. Peters first presents Melissa as a typical bored teenager – bored with her parents, with her town, with life in general. Her one saving grace is her love of reading books – real physical books with pages and covers. Peters shows how under Agnes’s influence, Melissa wakes up to the possibilities around her and comes to appreciate things she had previously rejected. By the end Peters gives us a Melissa who is happy and much more alive than the moody girl we had first met.

Mr. and Mrs. Trimble are played by real-life husband and wife Kelly Wong and Cosette Derome. Unlike the Bankses in Mary Poppins, in Foster’s play neither of the Trimble parents is portrayed as very bright. George is unreasonably optimistic so that events that would at least momentarily give a normal person pause have no effect on George. Sally, on the other hand, may be the town’s mayor, but she has a habit for misquoting common sayings so that they become pointless remarks, as in “It is always darkest in the middle of the night”.

It may seem like a mixture of praise and criticism but Wong has such a naturally dapper demeanour and such a cultured voice that it is very difficult to accept his character as a dimwit. These qualities made him excellent as the criminal mastermind in the thriller Rope at the Shaw Festival this year, but here we have to learn that this poised, intelligent-sounding man is a few bricks short of a hod rather than realizing the fact at once.

Derome puts on a more lively, unconcerned air so that we can see how Sally could both run a city well and still confuse her would-be words of wisdom. It would have been better if director Patricia Vanstone has eliminated the spit-takes that Sally does every time she sees Melissa reading a book. First, we wonder how she can be so surprised that at seeing the same thing so often. Second, the clean-up afterwards is not really worth the effect.

Young Hayden Neufeld has a confident presence on stage as Melissa’s brother Brian, but it’s a pity that Foster doesn’t give him more dialogue. I can see that the emphasis is meant to be on Melissa, but we do wonder why Brian is going through a phase of imitating singers who died before he was born. How could he know about them? How could his rather unaware parents even know about them?

As usual Peter Hartwell’s set is a model of sleek, attractive design. Chris Malkowski gives the lighting just a subtle enough alteration every time Agnes uses her powers that we realize early on that Agnes is no ordinary aunt.

While Aunt Agnes for Christmas may not be the best constructed Foster play this year, it still has a high ratio of of laughs per minute even if all the elements of the story don’t quite gel. McLellan’s performance on its own is worth the price of admission and her interactions with Kate Peters as Melissa are delightful in themselves as well as providing the core of what the play seems to be about. One good feature of the play as a Christmas show is that when Melissa and Agnes take a walk around the town they happen to run into real philanthropists of the St. Catharines area making cameo appearances. During a season of giving it is a wonderful idea to highlight the work of real people who give of their time, money and expertise all year round.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Cosette Derome as Sally, Kelly Wong as George, Hayden Neufeld as Brian, Kate Peters as Melissa and Nora McLellan as Aunt Agnes; Nora McLellan as Aunt Agnes and Kate Peters as Melissa; Nora McLellan as Aunt Agnes, Cosette Derome as Sally and Kelly Wong as George. © 2019 Bob McGee & Divino Mucciante.

For tickets, visit www.fosterfestival.com.