Stage Door Review

My Hero

Thursday, July 7, 2022

✭✭

by Norm Foster, directed by Simon Joynes

Port Stanley Festival Theatre, Grace Auditorium, Port Stanely

June 17-July 9, 2022

Corinne: “If I want to cavort, I’ll cavort”

Norm Foster is already known as Canada’s most prolific and most produced playwright, so it should be no surprise that during the pandemic he wrote eight play, all of which are ready for productions. The first of these to appear is My Hero, now at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. The play will likely sweep through theatres in Canada and beyond because it tackles two particularly relevant topics – older children moving back with their parents and seniors discovering that romance doesn’t have to stop at age 60.

The story concerns Jim Devine (Reid Janisse), who, after his divorce from his wife of twelve years, moved in with his mother Corinne (Susan JohnstonCollins). That was five years ago and Corinne, a former lawyer, is naturally wondering when or even if Jim is planning to get on with his life. He is gainfully employed as a high school English teacher and is directing the school’s production of Hamlet, but he shows no evidence of wanting to move on and, even though he is 40, he seems perfectly happy living at home and sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

Meanwhile, things have changed for Corinne. Her husband, a renowned hockey player, has been dead now for 30 years. He died in a car accident when Jim was only 9. Corinne finds that she  is irresistibly attracted to her gardener Randy (Murray Furrow), also over 60, and he has taken a shine to Corinne. When the play opens, Jim discovers, much to his dismay, that his mother is actually planning to go out on a date with Randy. Jim likes Randy, the “Yard Bard”, who has a love for Shakespeare, but the idea that his own mother may be restarting her sex life fills the prudish Jim with revulsion.

As usual with Foster, although the character we meet may be funny, they all have a background of unhappiness. For Jim and Corinne it is the early death of Corinne’s husband/Jim’s father. Even when he was alive, though, having a hockey star as a father was no benefit to Jim, who was teased for being so unlike his father. For Corinne, it meant having to take a back seat to her husband’s career and to put up with his less than saintly behaviour.

We discover that Randy’s wife committed suicide about 20 years previously. Because of this he has had to put his daughter Olivia, who has epilepsy, into an institution. In scheduling his free time he always puts the demands of Olivia first which eventually leads to a confrontation with Corinne.

Most of the play’s humour focusses on Jim, who not only seems like a milquetoast for living with his mother at age 40 but seems perfectly Victorian in his attitudes towards anything to do with sex. Foster saves his more sophisticated humour for Corinne and Randy and the various ways they try to negotiate their relationship.

Abundant though it is in laughter, the main problem with the play is that it doesn’t fully explore many of the issues it raises. The most significant of these issues consists in not passing the so-called test of “Chekhov’s gun”, namely, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there”. The question asked repeatedly by both Jim and Randy is why would Corinne’s husband drive through the dangerous snowstorm that caused his car accident just to be home sooner.

Corinne knows the answer and tells it to Randy but also tells him that she has hidden it from Jim. In a fully-formed drama, Jim would have to learn why his father drove through the snowstorm and we would have to see the effect it would have on him and on Corinne telling him. Foster avoids staging such a scene likely because it would be so far removed from comedy. Nevertheless, had he staged it, the play would feel more complete and it would acquire a depth that it presently does not have.

Other questions not fully explored include the reason why Randy’s wife committed suicide and how this has made him feel and how it may have inhibited his relations with women. The most obvious question is why Jim, with such an outgoing mother and such a famous father, is so extremely introverted and so disturbed by any mention of sex. The effects may be funny, but we would also like to know why Jim is the way he is.

Present, but never made explicit, is the play’s relation to Hamlet. One could see the entire play as a long comic parallel to the so-called “closet scene” in Shakespeare’s play where Hamlet forces his mother to compare her present spouse to her deceased far more worthy husband. Here Jim’s objection to Randy has more to do with Jim’s averseness to change than any defect in Randy.

PSFT Artistic Director has directed a smoothly flowing production with a keen sense of where the comic pauses should be. Susan JohnstonCollins and Murray Furrow are old hands at this mode of comedy. Reid Janisse, with a background in improv and satire at The Second City, is not, and his acting style contrasts significantly with that of his castmates. Most noticeably Janisse tends to deliver his lines in machine-gun style as if in a comic revue and less like an actor in a realistic drama. He does settle down into a calmer style when the play calls for it, especially in Act 2, but for all of Act 1 and too much of Act 2, Janisse’s Jim comes off as unalteringly irritated and unable to speak in anything but the loudest register. 

JohnstonCollins and Furrow are quite different and speak in round, considered tones which makes them able to lend their characters much more subtlety. JohnstonCollins’s Corinne is a rich comic creation. She shows Corinne playing the role of seductress while simultaneously criticizing herself for doing so. She can also communicate more with an intense silence than Janisse can with a stream of words.

Furrow is also warmly comic. His character walks a fine line between comedy as concerns Corinne and pathos as concerns Olivia, and Furrow has Randy walk this line with such care that we can almost see desire and duty competing in his gestures and facial expressions.

The action takes place on Joshua Quinlan’s very handsome set of the Devines’ living room always given a natural look by Karen Crichton’s lighting. Alex Amini has designed a large number of outfits for JohnstonCollins, all precisely capturing the Corinne’s personality in a wide number of situations. She has also made Jim look like a nerd no matter whether he is wearing a jacket and slacks or only pajamas.

None of Foster’s plays written during the pandemic mention the disease. Foster told SaltWire in February this year that, “the whole subject depresses me. I only write about things that make me laugh”. Nevertheless, My Hero features three characters who feel isolated and long for connection. In recent plays like Lunenburg (2017) and The Writer (2019), Foster hasn’t shied away from depressing or disturbing topics and those plays have been all the stronger for it. I can see why Foster may not have wished to look at the darker aspects of My Hero, but he couldn’t help but place them there and his past work shows he could very well have gazed at them a bit longer. Yet, most people will be laughing so hard at his characters’ comic battles in My Hero, they will be happy enough with what is there without wondering about what is missing.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Reid Janisse as Jim and Susan JohnstonCollins as Corinne; Murray Furrow as Randy and Susan JohnstonCollins as Corinne© 2022 Shutter Studios.

For tickets visit psft.ca.