Stage Door Review 2023

Margaret Reid

Monday, July 17, 2023


by Madeleine Brown, directed by Monique Lund

Here For Now Theatre, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford

July 14-29, 2023

Cora: “A narrative has to have a narrator”

Margaret Reid by Madeleine Brown is currently receiving its world premiere at the Here For Now Theatre Festival. The hour-long play about the thin line between truth and lying is a clever piece of metafiction, but it needs to round out its characters and their motivations a bit more before we can become as involved in the story as we should.

The story concerns two 12-year-olds, Cora and Debbie, who are competing for first prize at a public speaking competition. Cora gives a moving account of how her three-legged aunt died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in New York City. Debbie gives an enthusiastic speech about L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and the success that book has had and the long series of Oz books it spawned. Not too surprisingly, Cora wins first prize because her speech is more personal and emotional.

Cora tells Debbie she has won First Prize at this competition twice before and that she will be attending the posh Ursula Franklin Academy in Toronto on a full scholarship. Under questioning, however, [spoiler alert] Cora reveals that her entire winning speech was a fiction – no aunt, much less with three legs, died in 9/11. Cora’s view is if people believe what you say it might as well be the truth.

This discovery of the truth is followed by a more gruesome one. The two girls witness Debbie’s pregnant babysitter, Margaret Reid, disposing of a body in the nearby recycling bin. Fortunately, as we later find out, Reid was caught and tried and put in prison.

In the next scene, the action has moved forward five years. Cora in some distress has sought out Debbie at her place of work in what seems to be a fast-food joint which may be a front for drug dealing. The position of the two girls is completely reversed. Cora did not go to Ursula Franklin and has given up public speaking which was her only pleasure. Meanwhile, Debbie is in Ursula Franklin on a full scholarship and has done so well in public speaking she is about to go off to the World Competition in Toronto right after work. This plan goes awry, however, when Cora tells Debbie the terrible news [spoiler alert] that Margaret Reid has escaped from prison and has stated that she is coming after both of them as the prime witnesses of her disposal of the body.

When next see the teenagers five years later, Cora’s news has had a devastating effect on Debbie while Cora herself has done very well by becoming a motivational speaker. She tells all the members of her audience that they are all writers, their life is a narrative and they are the ones who are in control of the narrative. This is not the end of the story. Brown has more revelations in store.

The play is directed and designed by Monique Lund, who spent 12 years as part of the Stratford Festival and who previous directed and designed the attractive two-person musical The Tracks (now called Where the Heart Is) by Kale Penny for Here For Now in 2021. With the help of movement director Patrice Bowler, Lund begins each scene of the play with a fairly odd ritual. Bethany Jillard, who plays Debbie, and Louriza Tronco, who plays Cora, appear acting like automata or life-sized puppets. Actor Carmen Grant, who plays Margaret Reid, chooses clothing and gives it to the two women who dress themselves in it. Grant withdraws and the scene starts.

These scenes may be Brown’s or Lund’s idea, but whatever the case they do try our patience because we have no idea what they are supposed to mean. We do find out what these scenes mean but only at the very end of the play which I certainly will not disclose.

The key flaw with the play in its current state is that we know so little about its two main characters. We may see them at ages 12, 17 and 22 but what we know is so contingent upon the plot that we really don’t know the two as people. This is especially true of Cora. Her motivation for visiting Debbie when they are both 17, for telling Debbie the news about Margaret Reid and for recommending the particular course of action she does is not at all clear. We might be able to imagine a reason if the play emphasized psychological realism, but Brown has deliberately given the play an absurdist slant (as in the aunt with three legs) which undermines any attempt at understanding the play psychologically.

Given this qualification, Jillard, Tronco and Grant’s performances are so confident and Lund’s direction so precise, that we feel that they know precisely what is going on even if the play itself does not let us know until its conclusion. Jillard clearly shows us how Debbie moves from an over-enthusiastic 12-year-old speaker praising an author who needs no praise to a self-assured, unpretentious 17-year-old grateful for her success to a wreck of a 22-year-old, paranoid and mentally disturbed. What we wonder is how Debbie so easily and rapidly makes the fateful decision about her future at age 17 after Cora’s news.

Tronco equally well traces Cora’s path from a conceited 12-year-old to an apparently devastated failure of a 17-year-old to a smarmy, successful 22-year-old who seems to believe in the easy pathway to happiness that she peddles to the public. What we wonder by the end of the play is how Cora came to be the way she is?

Carmen Grant excels at making Margaret Reid a mystery while still giving a comic edge to someone who is a murderer. Brown is not clear whether Grant’s subsequent appearances are meant to be people that the young women mistake for Reid or actually Reid in different guises. In either case, Grant is expert at making the different guises quite distinct.

Brown ends her pay with two twists. The first is quite a surprise and is both satisfying and novel. The second twist is less of a surprise and is not novel. In fact, it is as old as Pierre Corneille’s play L’Illusion comique (1634) or, for a more recent example, Pirandello. I wish Brown had omitted the second twist because the first really said all that needed to be said and the costume design accompanying it was a hoot.

Margaret Reid in its present state is both enjoyable and frustrating. Even the final twist does not explain why the action has taken the course it has and makes it feel as if Brown has simply toyed with the audience rather than enlightening them. The absurdist slant Brown gives the piece is fun, but I think that by emphasizing the psychological motivation of the characters Brown would arrive at a more powerful and definitely more disturbing play that would still be grimly comic in its own way.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Bethany Jillard as Debbie; Bethany Jillard as Debbie and Louriza Tronco as Cora; Carmen Grant as Margaret Reid. © 2023 Ann Baggley.

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