Stage Door Review 2023

The Fox

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


by Daniela Vlaskalic, directed by Kelli Fox

Here For Now Theatre, Stratford-Perth Museum, Stratford

August 25-September 9, 2023

Jill: “I hate nature”

Here For Now Theatre’s festival of new work is presenting the world premiere of The Fox by Daniela Vlaskalic. Vlaskalic is probably best known as one of three co-authors, along with Beth Graham and Charlie Tomlinson, of The Drowning Girls (2008), a chilling true crime tale that has seen productions all over North America. The Fox is written in the mode of a thriller but, unlike The Drowning Girls, is not very chilling principally because Vlaskalic does not give us enough information to assess exactly what is at stake.

The setting is the dining room/parlour of a farmhouse somewhere near London, Ontario, in 1918. Jill and Nellie are the only two people running the farm and things are not working out. Jill, who has a delicate constitution, bought the farm after the previous owner died but cannot do any heavy work. All that is left to Nellie, but she alone can’t do all that needs to be done. When the action begins we learn that a fox has been menacing the chickens again – a fact that sems symbolic of the general fear that the farm is about to fail. Nellie is upset because she had the fox right in the sights of her rifle but could not fire and can’t understand why.

Unsettling the women’s already disconsolate state of mind, a young man casually enters the farmhouse by the back door as if he owned the place. It turns out this is a young soldier, Henry, waiting to be demobbed, who has sought out his grandfather’s farm thinking to find work and shelter there. Henry is unhappy to learn that not only has his grandfather died while Henry was away at war but that the farm has been sold.

Given the shock of Henry’s discovery and the fact that he cannot stay in town due to the outbreak of influenza, the women decide they care nothing about what the village says about propriety and allow Henry to stay in his grandfather’s old room for the night. As one might expect, that one night turns into several days and the several days into several months. The farm needed another hand to help it survive and Henry proves to be that second hand.

The only problem is that Henry has fallen in love with Nellie and wants to marry her. This situation suddenly turns Jill against Henry. She reminds them that she owns the farm and that she will have to turn them out if they marry. This threat, however, does not faze Henry since he claims he has land out west where he and Nellie can settle. The situation leads to many questions. Is Henry really in love with Nellie? Was his plan really to take over Jill’s farm? Is that still his plan? And why is Jill so violently angry at Nellie and Henry?

As it happens, we don’t really find out the answers because Vlaskalic has not given us enough information to assess the situation. The first question why Jill has bought a farm. She tells Nellie outright that she does not like nature and she lists everything that she doesn’t like about the farm which pretty much includes everything on the farm. Why has she bought a place to live where she is unwilling to do any of the constant upkeep? Having found out what a farm is like and having realized that she is not making any money from her investment, why hasn’t she sold it?

The second question involves Nellie. Who is she and how did Jill meet her? Nellie says if she weren’t working on the farm she’d be working in a factory. How exactly can Nellie be pleased doing all the hard work on the farm while the delicate Jill linger indoors? Also, given that Jill has money and Nellie does not, how could Jill have even met someone obviously outside her social circle?

All this means that Vlaskalic’s initial set-up doesn’t make much sense. One could say that Jill and Nellie are early feminists trying to live a life without men, except that neither feminism nor men come up as a topic. Neither does their reason for trying to keep the farm going. If Jill and Nellie were lesbians, then mutual love would go a long way toward explaining why Jill and Nellie would seek the isolation of a farm and why Nellie is willing to accept such an unequal workload.

Also, if we knew better what precisely the two women mean to each other – Is Nellie really just Jill’s farmhand, as she says? – we would have a much clearer understanding why Henry’s taking Nellie away from Jill has such an extreme effect on Jill, turning former friendliness towards Henry to hatred.

Yet, neither in the text nor in Kelli Fox’s direction is there any clue that Jill and Nellie are any more than friends, and perhaps not even that. What we see is two women who are comfortable living with each other but do not have any shared interests other than the farm, no claims on each other and no romantic interests at all.

Given the large quantity of unknowns, it is very hard to judge why precisely Jill comes to view Henry as such an enemy and Nellie as a traitor. This means that the tension Vlaskalic tries to manufacture is never effective. Her symbolism of comparing Henry literally to the fox that has been harassing the chickens hit one over the head and places the women in the unflattering role of being silly chickens.

What makes The Fox watchable are the totally committed performances of the cast. Until Henry appears, Siobhan O’Malley and Allison Plamondon do very well at making Jill and Nellie’s “this is only a work-related relationship” relationship believable. Allison Plamondon makes Nellie a such a practical, no-nonsense person, it’s rather surprising that she should fall for Henry. Yet, at the same time, Plamondon makes us feel that Nellie has perhaps never received such rapt attention from another person before. Plamondon suggests movingly that Nellie has never before considered herself as someone who could be loved.

O’Malley manages to play both sides of the emotional dichotomy in Jill effectively. There is nothing obvious in O’Malley’s portrayal of Jill’s pre-Henry deportment. Jill is weak, ill and hates the new life she has chosen. Yet, O’Malley also gives us the sense that Jill rather likes being feeble and enjoys being waited on. When Henry first appears it is Jill who warms to him and asks him to stay. The possibility of a man about the house suddenly wakes Jill out of her languor.

When Jill learns that Henry has fallen in love with Nellie, O’Malley has Jill make a 180º turn in mood. O’Malley has Jill drop her weakness to find unexpected strength. Jill becomes rude and insulting to both Nellie and Henry, and if it is not that Jill is angry at losing Nellie, it is at least that Jill is angry at losing control of a situation where she was the centre of attention. O’Malley is especially good at turning on an icy politeness toward Nellie and a scorching judgmentalism toward Henry even in the same breath. When Jill begins telling outlandish tales about Henry, O’Malley shows us both Jill’s desperation at being left alone and gives us the sense that Jill is losing her mental equilibrium.

Henry is played by Callan Potter and it is easy to see why women might fight over him. Not only is he handsome but he is endowed with a naturally magnetic personality. Potter presents Henry as easy-going and hard-working, but he has a strange knack of making it almost impossible to tell whether Henry is ever sincere. It is primarily this ambiguity that he projects as Henry that gives the play what little tension and forward momentum it has. Partly it is because I was so drawn in by Vlaskalic’s The Drowning Girls and partly it is because Potter makes Henry appear too good to be true that the idea of either woman marrying him feel tinged with danger.

Vlaskalic’s script requires far too much setting and clearing of the table for tea and dinner. Since there is no water in the water jug nor tea in the teapot, I wondered whether it might be better to do without all but the most essential props, i.e., the rifle and the ring, and mime all the rest. The play comes to a strange and not entirely explicable conclusion and an emphasis on mime might help pull the play away from realism and more toward symbolism where, as per the title, it is already headed.

The Fox is a play definitely worth seeing for its acting. Vlaskalic may have intended The Fox to be a thriller, but as it actually turns out to be more of a mystery given that so much of the characters’ pasts and motivations remain unknown to us even at the end.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Allison Plamandon as Nellie, Callan Potter as Henry and Siobhan O’Malley as Jill; Siobhan O’Malley as Jill; Allison Plamandon as Nellie; Callan Potter as Henry. © 2023 Ann Baggely.

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