Stage Door Review

goldfish

Sunday, July 11, 2021

✭✭

written and directed by Steve Ross

Here For Now Theatre, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 8-25, 2021;

September 14-17, 2021

Shannon: “You do your thing and I’ll do my thing”

Theatre-goers will know Steve Ross from his many memorable roles at the Stratford Festival over 16 seasons such as Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha in 2014 and The Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show and Mayor Shinn in The Music Man in 2018. Here For Now Theatre’s 2021 New Works Festival now gives us a chance to see different side of Ross both as a playwright and a director. Given the intelligence and wit that has informed Ross’s performances it should be no surprise that wit and intelligence also inform his play goldfish. What may surprise some is the underlying seriousness of this comedy and the ultimate poignancy of its effect.

The play takes the familiar situation of an unlikely friendship that develops between two strangers and gives it twists that make the situation more unusual. The show follows a year in the acquaintanceship of the retired handyman Walt (John Dolan), who spends most of his day sitting on his front porch, and the young woman Shannon (Laura Condlln), who has recently moved in just across the street and has started a day-care centre.

The action begins when a ball thrown by one of Shannon’s two young sons bounces up onto Walt’s porch. Walt asks Shannon what her name is. It takes him a few tries to get it right. Then, a few minutes later, he asks the same question again.

Persuaded that her new neighbour is a lonely senior in need of company, Shannon makes a point of dropping by every day just to say hello. Every visit begins with Walt asking her name, making several tries to get it right and then asking it again. Some of Walt’s stray remarks make Shannon curious about his family and interests. She discovers that even though Walt may not remember what she told him just minutes ago, he has a highly detailed memory of the events of the past going right back to his childhood.

Seemingly by way of a cognitive test, one day Shannon brings with her a box or questions from Trivial Pursuit. Walt misses one question but gets all the rest of them, even the most difficult ones, right. Thus Shannon proves to herself (and to us) that Walt is suffering from no more serious mental condition than short-term memory loss. That condition can be a precursor of dementia, but Walt has clearly not reached that point yet. In fact, Shannon finds that Walt has had such a varied life experience, including the deaths of his wife and brother, that he can give sound advice about her own problems.

As it happens, during the course of the play, Shannon’s personal problems, with signs pointing to the breakup of her marriage, become ever more serious. Shannon may initially have taken Walt on as a project for his own good, but as time passes we see that it is she who needs him since he is the only person to whom she can unburden herself.

One of the joys of both of Ross’s writing and direction is how beautifully he has managed the gradual shift in the dynamics between Walt and Shannon. Ross has Shannon move ever so subtly from attempting to draw out Walt’s memories to using him as a sounding board for her own unhappiness. Each of their interchanges is punctuated with Walt’s telling of old jokes dependant on terrible puns which Walt exasperatingly feels the need to explain.

As a director Ross seeks to draw performances from Dolan and Condlln that are just as natural and unforced as the eminently natural dialogue and unforced humour of his script. In this way Ross and his cast avoid all the possible clichés of the lovable curmudgeon and his perky neighbour that a lesser playwright, director and cast might rely on.

What Ross, Dolan and Condlln give us instead is a portrait of two very complex characters who in fact become more mysterious to us the more we know about them. Though goldfish is framed as a comedy, Ross seems to be exploring the existential question of how well one person can ever know another. Dolan’s Walt appears entertained by observing what life he can see from his front porch, but he gives us the impression that everything he sees call up memories of the past. That’s why Dolan’s Walt always seems to be in a trance when Shannon drops by as if she suddenly brings him back to the present from his reveries of the past.

For her part, Condlln beautifully details the subtle stages of Shannon’s relationship with Walt. Shannon may begin her inaction with Walt sounding enthusiastic and carefree, but Condlln has a knack of letting doubt shade even Shannon’s happiest moments. Condlln depicts Shannon’s descent from happiness to misery so gradually it’s impossible to pinpoint when Shannon shifts from trying to relieve Walt’s loneliness to trying to relieve her own.

As Ross paints it the relationship of Walt and Shannon is implicitly poignant. While we know that Walt enjoys Shannon’s company, we also have no faith that he will ever remember what he has told her or what she had told him. Our final image is of two people who have found comfort by learning to be alone together.

The play’s title is based on the commonly held notion mentioned in the play that goldfish have only a 3-second memory. Also mentioned in the play is the fact that scientific experiments have repeatedly refuted this notion. Goldfish can learn information that they recall several months later.

By choosing such a title Ross seems to suggest that short-term memory loss is no signal that an individual’s life is unimportant. As is evident in play, the richness of Walt’s memories make Shannon realize the relative poverty of her own present life.

Though I wish the circumstances leading up to the ending could be made clearer, goldfish proves to be a comedy with a strong emotional impact, one whose force really takes one unawares. Those hoping to see an excellent play at Stratford need look no further than goldfish. The true-to-life nature of the writing, the sensitivity of the performances and the surprisingly profound effect of the experience will stay with you long after the show has ended.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: John Dolan and Laura Condlln, © 2021 York Lane Art Collective. Steve Ross, John Dolan, Laura Condlln. © Here For Now Theatre.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.