Stage Door Review 2019

New Magic Valley Fun Town

Mar 14, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Richard Rose

• Tarragon Theatre & Prairie Theatre Exchange, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

February 27-March 31, 2019;

• Neptune Theatre, Halifax

April 5-21, 2019

Cheryl: “There are worlds inside me you know nothing about”

Daniel MacIvor hits his stride again with his latest play New Magic Valley Fun Town now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. As with many of MacIvor’s solo shows, NMVFT starts out as a comedy that suddenly turns dark so quickly your head spins. Acted by a cast that couldn’t be bettered, including MacIvor himself, the play in only 90 minutes makes you feel as if you know its characters and makes you care about what happens to each one of them. Luckily for us, in this play MacIvor does suggest that there is a way out of the darkness.

All of the action is set in the immaculately clean mobile home designed with minute accuracy by Brian Perchaluk. Situated somewhere in MacIvor’s native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the trailer is home to is Dougie (MacIvor), now in his late 50s. Though it takes some time to realize it. Dougie’s trailer is parked not that far away from the house where his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis) and daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) live. Husband and wife have been separated in this way for nine years, but as Cheryl admits, she sees Dougie more now than when he was living with her in the house.

Dougie is all in a fuss because his best friend from childhood Allen (Andrew Moodie), whom he hasn’t seen in 25 years is coming back for a visit. The first two thirds of the play are broadly comic almost as if MacIvor were writing the pilot for a sitcom. Dougie enters with a tottering pile of groceries and alcohol supplies. We fear something will fall and it does and makes a mess. Doug has a fit. But the there are no paper towels so he has another fit. 

Dougie accuses Cheryl of being a snoop and she is. When he is taking a shower, she methodically goes through the many bottles of prescription drugs he has and counts the number of pills in each one to see whether Dougie has or has not been taking his medication. What all the prescriptions are for, we fully don’t know until late in the play. We do know that some are for pain, we assume that some are for Dougie’s obvious, obsessive-compulsive disorder and some must have to do with a recent nephrectomy (although the someone on the creative team should realize that the bandage Dougie wears is in the wrong place for that procedure).

Then there is Cheryl who is full of witty come-backs and religiosity. She’s a devote Catholic and tries in vain to get her pagan husband and daughter to attend mass with her. She loves it that Father Cameron still presides over services even though he is 85.  

And there is Sandy. She has managed to get to the point of writing a Ph.D. thesis in English literature but she has had bipolar disorder since her teenaged years and is now in a major low. She spends most of the day in her pyjamas, doesn’t take her medication and likes to drink. 

Finally, after much more comic fussing by everyone, Allen arrives. He is fit and Black. His nickname in school was “Charky” for “charcoal” and no one thought there was anything wrong with it. Allen has brought a DVD taken by Father Cameron when the Father took him and Allen and other boys to New Magic Valley Fun Town, a now-closed amusement park, that the kids all loved when it was in business.

When Sandy gets drunk, she also becomes amorous and her increased flirting with Allen causes Cheryl and Dougie to think the party should end. When it does end, and Allen is finally alone with Dougie, Allen reveals why it is that he has come to visit and the entire mood of the play shifts from blithely comic to deadly serious.

To say any more about what Allen has to tell Dougie would spoil the play. Yet, someone has decided that the play requires a warning posted both on the Tarragon website and at the door stating, “Audience Advisory: while full of comedic moments, this play also touches on sensitive issues such as the aftermath of past trauma”. This advisory gives away far too much of the story. Television and movie advisories are not that specific. On television one hears mere, “The programme contains mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised”. If that is the case with mass media, why should warnings for a play be more specific? Treating the audience as snowflakes who can’t cope with a fiction on stage yet can watch unnumbered horrors on the news is insulting.

In any case, the shift in mood toward serious drama also causes us to re-evaluate everything we have seen so far. MacIvor had allowed us to laugh at Dougie’s OCD and his hyperactivity in trying to make everything perfect for Allen’s arrival. We now see that OCD is not inherently comic and that Dougie’s hyperactivity may spring from something rather deeper than perfectionism. We recognize that Cheryl’s unwavering faith in the Church and Sandy’s depression are also not inherently comic but may have more serious causes. This is a major dramatic and generic turnaround that few playwrights could pull off, except that, in retrospect, we see that MacIvor has carefully placed non-comic clues all through the action before Allen’s arrival that we have ignored in our reaction to the seeming comedy of the situation. 

If there is a flaw with the play, it may be that the lead-in to Allen’s arrival is too long compared to the amount of time he is actually on stage. Also, although we soon learn that Allen has something important to tell Dougie, we also find that Dougie has something important to tell Allen. It feels as if MacIvor curtails any development of this last exchange between Allen and Dougie too quickly.

Nevertheless, under director Richard Rose’s direction, the entire cast gives outstanding performances. This production had its world premiere run at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Calgary at the start of the year, and now the four roles feel completely lived in. 

Not the least of these is Daniel MacIvor himself. The play gives him the chance to show off his great talent for physical comedy that, for unknown reasons, he has so far kept hidden. The very opening sequence of small disasters in the kitchen is a gem of of the highest order in this genre. He carries on his conversations in the entire play before Allen’s entrance as if mentally distracted, as we gather, by the mix of emotions that surround the return of his former best friend. Yet, his overreaction to his unconscious attempt at closeness with Allen leads us to see that a deep pain underlies the actions of this man we had previously, and incorrectly regarded only as comic. As MacIvor exquisitely demonstrates, Dougie experiences pain on every level – physical, emotional and existential. 

Matching MacIvor in expressing multiple layers of sentiment is Andrew Moodie as Allen. When we first meet him he seems cold, analytical and mentally preoccupied. As we later realize this is because Allen has visited Dougie with a very specific purpose and it is very difficult for him to get into the giddy, lighthearted mood of a simple happy reunion of friends that everyone else thinks it is. Cheryl ans Sandy regard Dougie’s OCD behaviour as an annoyance but just part of Dougie’s personality, whereas Allen particularly points out it to them and says he knows when it began. Even before Dougie and Allen are alone we realize that Allen knows far more about Dougie than do even his wife or daughter. Moodie also makes clear that Allen’s coldness has another source, one that causes him as much pain in its way as the pain Dougie suffers. Indeed, Moodie makes us sense this underlying pain when Allen decides to tell Sandy what he is really like. 

Caroline Gillis gives an outstanding understated performance. She makes Cheryl into yet another rich study of an ordinary human being all too believably filled with contradictions. In her hands Cheryl asserts she is happy with her living arrangement with Dougie, but is she really? She claims she is upset with Sandy for doing nothing every day, but is she? In some ways Gillis makes us think Cheryl is tired of fighting with Dougie and Sandy, but at the same time she gives Cheryl the conviction that there is hope for change. She may go to church regularly for a breath of peace but she is not so naive that she does not notice all the animosity that lurks beneath the surface of the faithful. 

Stephanie MacDonald completely holds her own against the three old pros she is working with. She brings out the characteristics in Sandy that link her especially to her emotionally damaged father. We see that her depression may be a disease but it is also part of an existential crisis in which Sandy no longer sees what purpose there is in life. Dougie may cope with a meaningless world through all his obsessive efforts to give it order. Sandy copes by seeking oblivion in drink. With the arrival of Allen, however, MacDonald shows us what a vibrant person Sandy could be if she were surrounded by intellectually stimulating people.

Special mention should be given to choreographer Brenda Gorlick for the wonderful dance she has created for Dougie and Sandy to Peaches & Herb’s “Shake You Groove Thing”. Gorlick captures the look of a couple whose high point in life was the disco era, who know a host of moves but are now rather rusty from not having danced so long. The dance is gently humorous, inventive and very realistic. MacIvor and Gillis perform it so well it deservedly receives a round of applause. It also provides a glimpse of how these two people once functioned so well as a couple.

MacIvor’s best plays have always defied generic categories or played with genre. That is exactly was NMVFT does and it demonstrates quite clearly how comedy and tragedy are simply different perspectives through which we can look at the same events. This change of genres may describe the structure of the play but it is also built into the journey of the characters. One of the most ancient statements of the purpose of tragedy is Aeschylus’s phrase “pathei mathos” (“learning through suffering”) from his Agamemnon (485BC). In comedy we laugh at others’ suffering, but when the tide turns, as in MacIvor’s play, both we and the characters understand that suffering can enlighten and can give one a purpose. New Magic Valley Fun Town is a remarkable play that superficially appears as enjoyable light entertainment but eventually reveals unexpected depths of thought and emotion and with them the flaws of our own prejudgement. It is a deeply fulfilling evening of theatre.          

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Daniel MacIvor, Stephanie MacDonald, Caroline Gillis and Andrew Moodie; Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor and Stephanie MacDonald; Daniel MacIvor; Andrew Moodie and Stephanie MacDonald. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com.