Stage Door Review

The Ladies Foursome

Thursday, September 16, 2021

✭✭

by Norm Foster, directed by Emily Oriold

• Norm Foster Theatre Festival, St. Catharines Golf & Country Club, St. Catharines

September 14-17, 2021;

• Sawmill Golf Course, Fenwick

September 18-19 & 26, 2021;

• Beechwood Golf & Social House, Niagara Falls

September 21-22,2021;

• Brock Golf Course, Fonthill

September 24-25, 2021

Connie: “No one lies on a golf course”

The Norm Foster Theatre Festival in St. Catharines has certainly come up with the most imaginative way to stage a play during a pandemic this year. The Festival is presenting Foster’s The Ladies Foursome (2014). Instead, building a set to represent a golf course, the Festival is staging the play on a real golf course – touring to four different courses in and around St. Catharines. The actors do not actually use a fairway, but play on the outskirts of the course, while the audience sits in golf carts in a semicircle facing them.

Spontaneous Theatre pioneered this drive-in mode of presenting a play last year when it staged Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a parking garage in the round with the audience seated in their own cars around the playing area. This was in July 2020 when provincial guidelines for Covid allowed for drive-in movies but not in person theatre. Now the Foster Festival has added to the fun of the theatre experience by using vehicles that carry on the golf theme.

In 1998 Foster had had a big hit with his play The Foursome. The story involved four male college chums, home for their fifteen year reunion, who play a round of gold for old times’ sake. Foster had been asked repeatedly to write a version of the play for women, but always refused because he didn’t want to tell the same story again, only with female actors. Finally, in 2014 the new story he wanted came to him. Foster keeps the same structure of dividing the action into 19 scenes, one for each hole and one for the conclusion, but the circumstances of the women’s game and their discussions are completely unrelated to those of the earlier play.

Norm Foster may be Canada’s most performed playwright but his comedies are unusual in that there is frequently a deep feeling of longing and loss that lies just under the surface of the humour. The very set up of The Ladies Foursome hints that the play will not be a mindless romp, although laughter is abundant, but something reflecting the more sombre side of life.

The Ladies Foursome concerns four women who have been golfing together once every week for 14 years. When play begins it is the day after the funeral of Catherine, one member of the foursome. Catherine was killed at age 48 in a freak accident at an amusement park. Now the other three – Tate (Cosette Derome), Margot (Gabrielle Jones) and Connie (Donna Garner) – have gathered to play a round of golf in Catherine’s memory. They are joined by someone they’ve never met – Dory (Kirsten Alter – one of Catherine’s friends who was at the funeral) who knew Catherine because she would spend two weeks every year at the lodge Dory runs at Lake Arrowhead, about 400 miles from where the others live.

The sources of tension within this group are manifold. Director Emily Oriold makes clear that the three remaining members of the old foursome already have underlying issues with each other and are now set on edge by the death of one of their own. Catherine’s death has placed given all three an unwanted perspective on how they live their lives.

With the addition of Dory, the tension becomes worse. First, Dory, who has heard about the group from Catherine’s visits, can’t stop interrogating the three to see how what they say about themselves corresponds to what Catherine said. In this way Dory offers a different, equally unwanted perspective on their lives from their dead friend herself. What emerges, however, at first to the disbelief and then to the dismay of the other three, is that the Catherine that Dory knew seems to be so completely different from the one they knew. Some of the three even moot that Dory is an imposter, but the facts she knows about each of them suggest that she had some connection to Catherine even if they are not sure what.

At the same time that tension grows within the threesome and between the threesome and Dory, tension also grows within each  of the four women. Tate, the youngest at 42, is the stay-at-home wife of a surgeon whose three children are now teenagers. She presents herself as perfectly at ease but comes off as the primmest and most naïve of the group. Her discomfort at first is caused mostly by the others suggesting that she does not love all three of her children equally since one of them has a lazy eye. By the end Dory reveals a secret about Tate that neither Connie nor Margot had suspected during the past 14 years.

Connie and Margot appear to be the two of the four who most openly embrace their flaws. Margot is CEO of a construction business but she is also unashamedly an alcoholic. (She hates golf, “but where else can you drink this early in the morning and people think it’s normal?”) But gradually we see there are no-go areas in Margot’s life that others stay away from and that Margot refuses to discuss.

Connie is a successful television news reader who is known to all her friends as proudly promiscuous. As she says, “I don’t worry about getting a reputation. I worry about keeping one”. But the reason for her promiscuity is not lust. Her revelation of why she behaves as she does is the most devastating speech in the play.

Just as Dory probes the lives of Catherine’s three friends, they probe Dory’s. She grew up in Arizona and married a Canadian who took her up to Lake Arrowhead, a resort in the middle of nowhere, which she manages and where she takes care of her six children. Beneath the air of confidence and contentment that Dory tries to exude, Catherine’s three friends find lost dreams, a dangerous character flaw and a feeling of eternal confinement.

Foster and Oriold masterfully delineate how the tensions among and within the four women grow until they reach a point where they explode. After this explosion, in a brilliant stroke, Foster has the four play an entire hole in total silence.

One could hardly hope for a better cast. Gabrielle Jones is a master of tone and comic timing. Her character Margot is the most raucously funny of the four, but Jones can also powerfully deliver Margot’s meditation on her regrets.

Cosette Derome is good at projecting Tate’s seemingly unbreakable façade of contentment and making Tate appear the most superficial of the four. But, with Tate’s insistence that “any dream is important, large or small” Derome shows us that there may me more to Tate than we supposed.

Donna Garner plays Connie with the most deadpan dry wit possible. Garner makes Connie’s delivery so caustic that her jokes often sound like bitter insults, which is perfectly in keeping with Connie’s nature. One of the many undercurrents in the play is whether Connie, the most cynical of the four, will ever accept Dory as a friend. We long for her to do so and Garner makes that transition a sign to show a sympathetic side of Connie we had not seen before.

Kirsten Alter is wonderful as Dory. She portrays Dory as the most enthusiastic and upbeat of the four. In fact, we think that the threesome game might easily have degenerated into rancour much earlier if Dory had not to joined them. At the same time when Alter has a chance to go on a rant about her own flaws and how she really feels about being trapped in a marriage with no escape, Alter manages the difficult task of tingeing her anger with a sense of irony as if Dory had already gone over this argument hundreds of times in her head and come to the same conclusion.

Directing a play with 19 entrances and 18 exits all featuring the same four characters poses the major difficulty of having each entrance and exit appear varied and natural. Here Oriold excels to such an extent that she banishes any hint of monotony.

One flaw the show did expose was the danger of having no preview before opening night. That would have discovered that there was a problem with the miking so that, even after the intermission check, Garner’s mic in particular kept cutting out leaving almost half her lines unamplified. Derome and Alter were also affected to a lesser extent by unreliable amplification. Luckily, I was sitting so close to the playing area that I could hear the unmiked dialogue. Yet, the technical flaw was an unneeded challenge for both audience and actors.

Nevertheless, The Ladies Foursome proves to be one of Foster’s very best plays. The 19 conversations allow Foster to have the women explore a huge range of topics from what makes the best kind of man to whether God exists and whether there is life after death.

Even more fascinating than these topics is the overarching puzzle posed by the play of how three friends can think they know a women well after 14 years and realize that they did not truly know her at all. Foster posits various reasons why this should happen particularly with Catherine, but he still leaves open the disturbing point that human interactions can lead people to conceal as much as they reveal about themselves. While The Ladies Foursome is filled with humour it is profound in observing how people can become strangers to their friends and even themselves. The power of the emotion of the play’s last moments will catch you by surprise.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: The golf carts in position to watch The Ladies Foursome at the St. Catharines Golf & Country Club. © 2021 Foster Festival.

For tickets visit fosterfestival.com.