Stage Door Review

Janet and Louise

Sunday, August 1, 2021

✭✭

by Deanna Kruger, directed by Jeannette Lambermont-Morey

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

July 27-August 15, 2021

Janet: “A stick is a stick is a stick”

Stratford independent Here For Now Theatre began its 2021 New Works Festival  with the powerful duo of Kale Penny’s musical The Tracks and Steve Ross’s insightful portrayal of an unusual friendship in goldfish. HFN’s second duo is a more uneven pairing but still one that will please anyone who has had a hankering for live theatre these past 15 months and longs to hear it unamplified and in comfortable surroundings.

The first play in this second duo is Janet and Louise by Guelph-based playwright Deanna Kruger. It stars Brigit Wilson as Louise, most recently see as Mistress Page in the Stratford Festival’s hilarious production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 2019 and Peggy Coffey, who is still remembered for her ideal portrayal of Cressida in the Festival’s production Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in 1987. The play is directed by Jeannette Lambermont-Morey, who directed many plays at the Festival in the late 1990s.

The premise of Kruger’s play is that Janet, a custodian at a local high school, has been prescribed art therapy by her doctor to treat a never-disclosed ailment. The awkward, accident-prone Janet goes to her first session with the art teacher Louise, an elegant but icy person who can’t help but look with disdain on Janet, who is literally dirty from her falls and resentful about her doctor’s prescription.

Once the two finally make eye contact they realize with some chagrin that they have known each other since childhood. Louise was the best friend of Janet’s older sister Rita and Rita and Louise always excluded Janet from their play much to Janet’s eternal resentment.

While Kruger is excellent at creating these two disparate characters and at imagining quite naturally how the dialogue would flow, or not, between them, the play has a number of features that tend to make it more confusing than intriguing. The first question involves the set-up of the plot itself. It is true that doctors can prescribe art therapy for a patient, but it is also true that more often than not it is practiced in groups, not one-on-one, and it is also true that anyone who practices art therapy, especially one who receives referrals from a doctor, has to have specialized training. The situation that Kruger depicts includes neither of these prerequisites.

The second mystery, which really should not be a mystery, is that we never have a clear idea why Janet was prescribed art therapy at all. Louise assumes it is because of stress, but Janet’s referral should state the cause and thus give Louise a clue of what to watch for in the art that Janet creates, if she should ever bring herself to create any.

Although Louise repeatedly attempts to keep her relationship with Louise professional and to force her finally to put pen, pencil or crayon to paper, the majority of Janet’s hour-long session with Louise is occupied with discussions of the past, catching up with what each has done for the past 20 years and finally moving into Janet’s claim that Janet’s parents always regarded Louise as a bad influence on Rita. Why Louise should be so viewed is a fact we would dearly like to know to understand the dynamic between the two women, but Kruger never tells us what it is.

The play’s most serious flaw is that it suddenly changed its focus halfway through. In its first half the play concentrates on art as therapy with the rather imperious Louise attempting to convince the totally uncultured Janet that art not only has a value in itself but also the beneficial value for self-expression for those creating it. Louise at present is creating artworks made from the branches of trees that the city has cut down in its efforts to modernize the sewer system on her street.

Louise realizes that Janet will be a tough student to teach because she seems to be so literal-minded. While Louise can see all sorts of things that a simple stick could represent, all Janet can see is a stick. Unconsciously paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, Janet says, “A stick is a stick is a stick”.

Nevertheless, as Louise with some distaste tries to draw some information from Janet that she could relate to art, Janet mentions that she loves to cultivate roses. In Particular, Janet likes to take rose bushes that seem on the verge of dying and bring them back to life.

Here, we think, with Louise’s desire to make art from dead trees and with Janet’s desire to revive dead rose bushes the two will eventually find some common ground. We think that the play will be about Janet’s realizing that she already does create art in one way and that it is beneficial to her. We also hope that the animosity between the two women will melt as each comes to understand the other.

It is very disappointing, therefore, that this is not the course that Kruger has for her play. Instead, when Janet comes to trust Louise, she reveals information to Louise that abruptly switches the play away from its contemplation of art and into a  whodunnit. Why Kruger would veer away from what had been a humorous exploration of the value of art into a simplistic genre entertainment is difficult to understand, especially since the first half had been developing so well. To make things worse, Kruger throws a couple twists into her whodunnit plot which lead less to exciting alternate possible explanations and more to simple confusion.

The play has been well cast. Brigit Wilson paints a never fully likeable portrait of a woman who has met so much disappointment in life that she developed hardness and lack of empathy as a means of protecting herself. If only Kruger had provided the Louise with more glimpses into what has made this woman so brittle, we might be able to care more about her as a character.

Peggy Coffey is a real treasure as Janet. Janet is woman whose life has literally gone nowhere. She is the custodian at the some school she graduated from but is so incurious about the rest of life that she is perfectly happy in the small restricted world she lives in. She still lives with her sister, has never known love and her greatest fear is that this stable world may somehow change. We gather that is the source of her anxiety, but as Coffey plays it, Janet’s falls and frequent dizzy spells seem to be symptoms of some more fundamental underlying condition than stress. Janet mentions that her doctor has ordered a whole series of tests but Janet has cancelled them all, we fear because she does not want to know the results.

At the same time Janet’s childish directness and uncooperativeness are humorous in a way that makes us sympathize with her even if we think she’s been foolish. Kruger’s playing off of the anti-intellectual Janet with the hyper-intellectual Louise is a subject that could have occupied an entire play.

As it is Janet and Louise feels like two different plays that have been artificially stuck together. While the interactions of Wilson and Coffey amuse us enough on a moment-by-moment basis, the whole play as it presently exists is not as satisfying as it could be. Kruger has a fine ear for dialogue and it will be interesting to see what she turns to next.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Brigit Wilson and Peggy Coffey; Brigit Wilson as Louise; Peggy Coffey as Janet. © Here For Now Theatre.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.