Stage Door Review

The Writer

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

✭✭

by Norm Foster, directed by Patricia Vanstone

Norm Foster Theatre Festival, FirstOntario PAC, St. Catharines

June 21-July 5, 2019

“A Kind Heart”

The Norm Foster Theatre Festival has opened its fourth season with the world premiere of Foster’s 60th play, The Writer. People who attend The Writer expecting a “typical” Norm Foster play will be in for a surprise. The tone of the play primarily serious and full of mystery. People familiar with Foster’s plays will know that beneath the humour there is usually a substratum of loss, sadness or regret. In The Writer the situation is reversed. The mood the play presents is full of loss, sadness and regret that is occasionally shot through humour. With superb performances from the two leads, Guy Bannerman and Jamie Williams, insightful direction and elegant design, this is a theatre experience of the highest level.

The focus of the story is Donald Wellner (Bannerman), aged 68 at the start of the play, who still lives off the success of his one big hit as a playwright, A Kind Heart, written 35 years ago. It received the Pulitzer Prize and was the peak of Donald’s career. Because of a terrible argument with his wife, Donald has moved out of his house and into a shabby apartment. As the play opens, Donald’s son Blake (Williams) has come to visit him to find out his side of the story and to see how his father is doing. 

It turns out that when A Kind Heart was playing in London’s West End, Donald met an English actress in the play suffering in an unhappy marriage. What precipitated the rage of Donald’s wife Eloise is that she had just discovered that Donald had been paying the actress’s rent for the last 33 years. Eloise's assumption is that Donald must have had an affair with the woman and even had a child with her and yet kept it a secret. Donald, however, told her and tells Blake now, that no such thing ever happened. Yet, when Blake presses Donald about what did happen and why he paid the actress’s rent for so long, all he will say is “It’s complicated”. 

Finding out the answer to this mystery is only one element of the story and not even the most important one. The play is really about the relation between Blake and Donald and Blake’s slow realization that his father is suffering from dementia. Each of the play’s eight scenes represents a new year and we begin with Donald at age 68 and Blake at age 42. Foster has written the play so that we are in the same position as Blake. We notice that Donald repeats some things and forgets others and claims he is fine when he is not. At first we think these are simply mistakes anyone could make. 

Gradually, we see that each year brings a disimprovement in Donald’s condition. The things he forgets become more essential and he confuses events of the past with the present. His mental state is not helped by what happens in his personal life. In the first scene of Act 1, Donald assumes that his break with Eloise along with his daughter Mandy’s estrangement would simply be a bump they would get over. By the end of Act 1, we realize along with Blake that a reconciliation may not happen anytime soon. 

The main symbol of Donald’s condition is the play that he is writing that we see as a sheet of paper permanently set up for typing in a manual typewriter. Donald says he is working on a new, very important play called Cast in Stone that will bring him back into the spotlight. But over the course of the eight years of the play, Donald never gets beyond page 10. 

The Writer will certainly not fit people’s image of what a “typical” Norm Foster play is like, if there actually is such a thing. For a playwright known for comedy, Foster dares to create a work with an overall sombreness of tone. He is even audacious enough to leave us in doubt about whether to laugh or not. In Act 1 when Blake says that he is seeing a male lawyer, Donald assumes that Blake is admitting he is gay. No matter how much Blake denies it, Donald interprets each of Blake’s denials as a confirmation of his own view. On the one hand, this is a typically comic quid-pro-quo. On the other, it is in this exchange that we start to wonder whether Donald is simply stubbornly attempting to show how liberal he is, or whether this is not stubbornness but a serious inability to understand what is said to him.

Like any two-hander the play requires fully committed performances to carry the show. Under Patricia Vanstone’s detailed direction, Guy Bannerman and Jamie Williams give extraordinarily fine performances. It is wonderful to see Bannerman, well known for his 30 years at the Shaw Festival, finally have the chance to carry a show. He portrays Donald as a old man who can be gruff and obstinate yet who also radiates a warmth and, one might also say, an innocence that makes us believe Donald when he says that nothing untoward happened between him and the English actress. Where Bannerman is so masterful is in showing Donald’s step-by-step decline through the eight years of the action. When we first see Donald it is as if someone had already turned the dimmer down on a light that had once burned almost too brightly. With each scene that inner light and outward glow seems to dim one degree further. By the end Bannerman shows us that Donald has almost entirely retreated from the world around him. 

Jamie Williams, who was previously seen at the Foster Festival in Here on the Flight Path in 2016, has a much more complex role to play in The Writer. Blake chooses to care for his father when Donald’s wife and daughter abandon him. This is difficult for Blake since he is a travel writer and is seldom in town. What strikes us most in Act 1 is how Williams shows how conflicted Blake’s view of Donald is. It mixes resentment that Donald never gives him credit for being a “real” writer with concern for his father’s worsening condition with combined worry and anger when Donald evades questions or suddenly slips into the past. Williams shows that Blake is valiantly trying to establish a rapport with his father even though he is painfully aware that his father is mentally withdrawing from the outside world. The urgency of Williams’s performance makes Blake’s final plea to his father the most emotionally charged scene I have witnessed in a play by Foster. 

As usual, the action takes place on an elegantly designed set by Peter Hartwell and is sensitively lit by Chris Malkowski. The piano music by Debussy that Vanstone has chosen for the scene changes captures the wistfulness of the piece. 

The Writer is definitely not a rollicking, knee-slapping comedy. Rather it is a sensitive depiction of the shift to the final phase of a parent-child relationship that many in the audience have likely already experienced. The play is comic in the broadest sense of the word since it is so alive to the ironies of life and it views human life with such compassion. Over the years Foster has been pushing the boundaries of the kinds of plays he writes. The Writer has an undeniable air of greatness about it. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Jamie Williams as Blake and Guy Bannerman as Donald. © 2019 The Norm Foster Theatre Festival.

For tickets, visit www.fosterfestival.com.