Stage Door Review
Paint Me This House of Love
Saturday, April 22, 2023
by Chelsea Woolley, directed by Mike Payette
Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Extraspace, Toronto
April 20-May 11, 2023
Rhondi: “Truth is love”
The Tarragon Theatre closes its 2022/23 season with the world premiere of Paint Me This House of Love by Chelsea Woolley. The play is based on the nugget of a good idea, but Woolley has presented the idea in such a deliberately awkward fashion I doubt many people will have any idea what is going on. She gives us three characters but by the end we know virtually nothing about any of them.
When you enter the Tarragon Extraspace you can’t help but admire the realistic set by Ken MacDonald. The main characters is supposed to be living in a decrepit house and MacDonald has depicted its decrepitude with near perfection. The walls, doors and trim are stained and plaster has broken away in parts revealing the lath behind it. Untrimmed bushes cover over the windows. The only flaw in the design is that the floor looks brand new and does suit the walls. It should be worn, scratched or have scuff marks.
The plot is very simple. An older man, Jules, is in the house and meets the young woman who owns the house, Cecily. In the first scene Jules tries to prove to Cecilia that he is her father whom she has not seen for 25 years. He has sent her postcards from all over the world documenting the travels where his business takes him, but Cecily eventually stopped writing to him. But why is he back? Why now? Why when she is still recovering from Michael, her ex-husband, leaving her?
To find out she visits her mother Rhondi, Jules’s ex-wife, for whom she does various favours, like shaving her legs. From Rhondi she hears information that completely contradicts what Jules said. According to Rhondi, Jules has never left the city, much less the country. Jules’s story that Rhondi left him, according to Rhondi, is also just the reverse. One fact that Cecilia does not want to agree with is that Michael was never her husband, let alone her ex-husband.
The question facing the audience at the end of Act 1 is which version of Jules’s story is true – his or Rhondi’s. And if Jules’s is not true, then why is he visiting her, with the apparent hope of staying?
This story would be very intriguing except that Woolley has decided to write the scenes between Jules and Cecilia in an incredibly artificial style. Both speak only in fragments, never finishing a sentence, each interrupting the other, each omitting the most important noun or verb of the fragment that would help it make sense.
In her Playwright’s Note, Woolley says she was very much influenced by Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978). What Woolley doesn’t seem to have noticed is that Pinter doesn’t write dialogue only in fragments. Here is an example from Betrayal where Emma tells Robert she has been having an affair with Robert’s best friend Jerry:
EMMA: Five years.
ROBERT: Five years? (pause) Ned is one year old. (pause) Did you hear what I said?
EMMA: Yes. He’s your son. Jerry was in America. For two months. (silence)
As is obvious, Pinter’s characters can manage to finish a sentence and a complete a thought and don’t omit the most important words. The key difference between Woolley and Pinter is that Woolley has no pauses or silence and characters constantly interrupt each other. Pinter uses pauses to allow his words to resonate with meaning. Woolley’s rush of interruptions mean that words have no resonance at all.
People do speak in the hyper, incoherent manner that Woolley uses in the height of excitement but eventually settle down in order to communicate clearly. In Woolley, Jules and Cecilia never do.
This bizarre stylistic choice doesn’t even make sense internally in the play. First, on occasion, Jules waxes eloquent about the foreign places he’s visited in long, voluptuous sentences only to return to choppy fragments when he speaks again with Cecilia. Second, Cecilia and Rhondi somehow manage to speak in complete sentences with each other and so Jules and Rhondi. So what, then, is the stylistic point of having Jules and Cecilia speak in such a different and non-naturalistic fashion with each other.
In her Playwright’s Note, Woolley says, “Much of this play is written in fragments. The words missing are the ghosts. They are Pinter’s unsolvable formula. They are canyons in the way of reconnection. I really love words. And I have loved removing them for you in this play”. If Woolley loves words so much, I really wish she had not removed them. It would make the dialogue between Jules and Cecilia not sound so artificial. It would allow them to communicate without all of Woolley’s manufactured contrivances. And it would allow the audience to have a much better idea of what is happening.
As it is, the conversations between Jules and Cecilia that open and close the play are so off-putting that we really don’t care about either one since we have to struggle too hard to replace the words that Woolley has so happily discarded from their dialogue.
Given the divergent styles of speaking in the play, director Mike Payette has not even tried to draw a uniform acting style from the cast. Jessica B. Hill as Cecilia speaks in a highly theatrical manner, rather as if she were playing to an audience several times larger than the 108 people that the Tarragon Extraspace seats. Jeremiah Sparks as Jules speaks in a naturalistic style with a tone well suited to the size of the theatre. Tanja Jacobs seems to be from an entirely different type of genre, perhaps a sitcom like The Golden Girls (1985-92), given her dry delivery and smirking pauses.
Hill makes an heroic effort in trying to make Cecilia make sense as a character when all Woolley gives us is contradictory information about her background and insufficient reasons for her actions. Hill does well to have Cecilia deny she is depressed in such an over-emphatic manner since that helps affirm for us that Cecilia is, indeed, depressed. Why she is depressed is not clear, especially if what Rhondi says about Michael is true. Why Cecilia should have such a huge reaction to Jules’s admission he has been lying is unclear since we discover shortly thereafter that Cecilia has been lying to him. If only Woolley gave the character of Cecilia more of a background we could trust, Hill would have a much easier making her a sympathetic figure.
Sparks is really quite wonderful as Jules. Sparks emanates a warmth and concern that override the untruths he says. As with Cecilia, it would be good if Woolley would provide us with some hint of a reliable background for Jules, but Spark is still able to make us empathize with Jules even if we don’t know his ultimate motives. In fact, Sparks makes it seem as if Jules himself does not really know his ultimate motives and is playing his whole new relationship with Cecilia by ear. On the other hand, Woolley’s explanation in Act 2 of why Jules is visiting Cecilia seems far-fetched and doesn’t really jibe with Rhondi’s supposed dislike of Jules.
Even if Jabobs plays Rhondi in a sitcommish mode, she is still very funny and, despite Rhondi’s many quirks, Jacobs is able to make us believe that what Rhondi says, in contrast to Cecilia and Jules, is true. Jacobs has a special ironic tone of voice that can make virtually any phrase amusing and she uses it to great effect in her depiction of the self-centred Rhondi.
I understand Woolley’s desire to take a story about loss and reconciliation and to give it a highly ambiguous ending. I also found that Hill and Sparks were able to generate a sense of affection in that conclusion without our really knowing how or why. In the end, we find ourselves responding to the force of the acting alone rather than to anything that the actors say. Woolley’s withholding of any reliable information about Jules and Cecilia coupled with her strange desire to remove key words from the dialogue leave us with a play that might have been fascinating but succeeds only in being frustrating.
Photo: Jessica B. Hill as Cecilia and Jeremiah Sparks as Jules; Jessica B. Hill as Cecilia and Jeremiah Sparks as Jules; Jessica B. Hill and Tanja Jacobs. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.