Stage Door Review 2019

Hilda’s Yard

Jul 16, 2019

✭✭

by Norm Foster, directed by Jim Mezon

Norm Foster Theatre Festival, FirstOntario PAC, St. Catharines

July 12-26, 2019

Mrs. Lindstrom: “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength”

Norm Foster’s 2012 comedy Hilda’s Yard may be the funniest play the Norm Foster Theatre Festival has yet presented. Not only does the comedy star Foster himself, but it reunites him with Patricia Vanstone, who together made such a ideal duo in On a First Name Basis, the play that launched the Norm Foster Theatre Festival in 2016. The four other characters are all well cast and well played and the show is directed by veteran Shaw Festival actor and director Jim Mezon, who directed Wrong for Each Other for the Foster Festival last year. 

The action takes place in 1956 in the back yard of Hilda Fluck (Vanstone), a typical ’50s housewife, who is hanging up laundry and chats with her next door neighbour Mrs. Lindstrom. Now that their two children Gary and Janie have left home and started their own lives, Hilda and her husband Sam (Foster) look forward to a life of relaxation. To help fill the free time they will now have, Sam is preparing to make a major purchase – his first-ever television set – and he is looking forward to watching Gunsmoke and the many other programmes he has heard of.

Just after he sets out on his important mission, Gary (Daniel Briere) climbs over the fence. His job didn’t work out and, worse than that, he is in debt to his bookie who has sent two thugs after him to receive payment or exact revenge. No sooner has Hilda dealt with Gary than Janie (Erin MacKinnon) climbs over the fence. She has left her husband because she has realized that she just doesn’t want to be a housewife. Within a few minutes Hilda and Sam’s dreams of being happy empty-nesters have vanished.

But there’s more. The next person over the fence is Bobbi (Amaka Umeh), Gary’s girlfriend of the past two weeks. Soon enough she is followed by Beverly Woytowich (Darren Keay), the bookie, who has come to see Gary himself but who finds himself suddenly attracted to Janie. Given that the group has so many issues to sort out among themselves, Hilda invites the newcomers along with her unwelcome children to dinner.

Agatha Christie’s novels are sometimes described as “puzzle mysteries”. Norm Foster’s Hilda’s Yard could be described as a “puzzle comedy”. As in a murder mystery, in Foster’s comedy order has been disrupted, but also as in a murder mystery, especially a “puzzle mystery”, order must be restored. When the six characters go in for dinner at the end of Act 1 of Hilda’s Yard, they all have so many disagreements with each other we have no idea what solution there can be to restore order. 

Yet, besides Foster’s gift for naturally comic dialogue, one of the main pleasures of Act 2 is seeing how piece by piece each of the disagreements of Act 2 is settled. Unlike Christie, Foster does not rely on newly revealed information to turn disorder into order but on the negotiations among the characters themselves. In fact, the character who might seem to be the main cause of disruption in the play turns out to be its main source of repairing the disruption. In general, Hilda’s Yard portrays a world where self-knowledge and forgiveness can set right a world that has been upset.

Jim Mezon directs the play with admirable clarity and precision. His sense of pacing is impeccable. Unlike many directors of comedy he knows that Foster’s play is funny enough and focusses on bringing out the humour inherent in the text without encouraging the actors to overplay their parts. Mezon knows that comedies are funniest when the characters regard their situation, no matter how absurd, absolutely seriously.

As the title character Patricia Vanstone’s Hilda is the soul of the play. Structurally, Hilda serves as the intermediary between the play and the audience since her comments on what is happening are addressed to Mrs. Lindstrom who is located on the other side of the fourth wall somewhere in the audience. Thematically, Hilda embodies the values of the older generation who know the world is changing but just don’t understand why young people, like her own children, give up so easily when they encounter obstacles.

Vanstone’s characterization of Hilda is absolutely delightful. In trying so hard to keep up with the changing times, she often assumes her children are talking about indiscreet topics when in fact they are not. Vanstone has Hilda maintain her sense of propriety no matter how strange the situation becomes. Above all, Vanstone shows that Hilda encompasses the play’s world view through her innate hospitality. She has made dinner and everyone is welcome, even the dodgy bookie who is out to shake down her son. As Hilda and the play itself demonstrate, kindness shown to people disarms them of rancour. 

One could hardly wish for a more definitive Sam Fluck than Norm Foster. His dry, non-nonsense style of delivery is perfect for a man who has lived within limited horizons all his life. Foster gives Sam a brusque exterior but he also shows that it conceals a wide range of emotions such as his unhappiness with his boring job, his embarrassment when he realizes his advice to Janie was wrong and above all his love for Hilda.

Daniel Briere and Erin MacKinnon are excellent as Gary and Janie. They seem very much like brother and sister since they share the same inability to cope with reality and yet the same ability to imagine something better than their present lives. Briere emphasizes Gary’s impulsiveness and seemingly baseless optimism while MacKinnon emphasizes Janie’s combination of ignorance and ambition. Both face real threats and our view, especially of Janie, changes when we realize she not fled her husband just on a whim.

As the two outsiders Amaka Umeh and Darren Keay spice up the play as Bobbi the trombone player and Beverly the bookie. Since they are both able to look at the Fluck family from the outside, both are able to assess the family members and their problems much more rationally than the family can themselves. Umeh’s Bobbi is hip and cool, but she is not so cool that she fails to see the common goodness in an old fogey like Hilda and, by extension, in her goofy son. Keay’s Beverly may be a dangerous man, but his persona is that of a suave gentleman whose vocabulary is the the most elevated of any of the six characters. Like Bobbi, Beverley also recognizes common goodness when he sees it. While we first think his attraction to Janey is opportunistic, we eventually come around to believing it may be something more substantial.

In the end Hilda’s yard, both the playing area on stage and the play named after it, becomes, as happens in the greatest comedies, a place where people who have entered at their worst are changed through their interactions and learn to become their best. The effect of Hilda’s hospitality is the realization of everyone present that forgiveness and change are possible. Even Hilda has a secret crutch she has used to help her cope with reality that she is able to cast away at the end. This gesture gives Foster’s comedy a sudden depth that challenges the audience to consider what coping devices they use that they could just as well cast away. Hilda’s Yard is a place not just of nonstop laughter but also a place where we get to know ourselves a little better. Visit it soon.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Erin MacKinnon as Janie, Amaka Umeh as Bobbi, Norm Foster as Sam, Patricia Vanstone as Hilda, Daniel Briere as Gary and Darren Keay as Beverly; Darren Keay as Beverly and Erin MacKinnon as JaniePatricia Vanstone as Hilda. © 2019 Alex Heidbuechel.

For tickets, visit www.fosterfestival.com.