Stage Door Review
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
by Steve Ross, directed by Jan Alexandra Smith
Here For Now Theatre Festival, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford
August 11-26, 2023
Jack: “He shone until he didn’t”
Most people will know Steve Ross from his 20 seasons at the Stratford Festival. People won’t soon forget his performance of “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago in 2022 or as the Narrator in Rocky Horror Show in 2018. Yet, in 2021 when the Here For Now Theatre Festival presented Ross’s play goldfish, we realized that Ross is also a fine comic playwright. This year Here For Now is presenting the world premiere of Ross’s play Life Without, a multigenerational tragedy. The play has such a powerful emotional and intellectual impact, it already feels like a masterpiece. We now have to face the fact that Ross is not just one of Stratford’s favourite performers in plays and musicals but is also a brilliant playwright.
Life Without is an amazing play. It is not amazing because of the disturbing events it discusses but because of the utterly natural way that Ross’s characters react to and discuss these events. I don’t think I’ve heard any playwright capture with such accuracy on stage the way that completely ordinary Southern Ontarians think and act. Director Jan Alexandra Smith seems to have realized this great virtue in Ross’s writing and has had her actors drive out all tricks and habits they might have used in the past so that their performances do not appear “actorly” at all. We feel as if we are hearing real people relate real incidents and I had to remind myself more than once that I was actually watching actors playing roles.
The premise of the play is that Liz, a woman a bit above middle-age, has come to some sort of counselling session where she is simply meant to talk about what has happened to her. She is surprised that there is no facilitator. Her husband Jack is there, too. After some embarrassment about having to be the first to speak, Liz tells us about the very happy marriage that she and Jack enjoyed.
The highlight of their marriage was the birth of their only child Claire. Everything was fine until Claire turned 12. Liz and Jack noticed changes in her behaviour and her grades slipping in school. Despite the previously good relations Liz and especially Jack had had with her, Claire became more secretive and combative until at age 14 the parents discover two terrible truths. Claire is an alcoholic and Claire is pregnant. There is no discussion of an abortion. Claire delivers the baby, named Josh, but from the very beginning she shows no interest in him. Claire breastfeeds him, but Liz and Jack do all the other work a new mother would do. When Liz is killed in a car accident, Josh’s parents become his de facto parents. This is the point where Liz and Jack have to learn to live “life without”, namely life without Claire and life without all the happiness and pain she brought them.
Ross is incredibly skilled in having both Liz and Jack express their enormous confusion of contradictory feelings over their circumstances with incredible naturalness. They start sentences and have to start again. They start sentences and may not be able to finish them. Ross has a knack for having characters describe the actions of others while inadvertently revealing more about themselves than what they describe. This naturalness of expression only makes the pain of the characters more real.
Yet, despite the parents’ apparently freeform narration of what happened, Ross’s play does have a definite structure. In fact, the play’s three-part structure, consciously or not, echoes the three-part structure of ancient Greek tragedies, which were always presented as trilogies. Only one of these trilogies, the Oresteia (458BC) by Aeschylus survives entire. Like plays of the mid-20th century like Death of a Salesman (1949), that set to prove that tragedies could happen to ordinary people, not just heroes and monarchs, Ross’s play demonstrates that the lives of people lower down on the social scale can reflect the structure of classic tragedy.
Though only 90 minutes long, Ross’s play is divided into three clear sections. The first involves Claire’s birth, life and death and the birth of Josh. The second involves Josh’s life. The third involves Liz’s attempt to reconnect with Josh. To explain specifically why this structure is tragic would give far too many details away that are best experienced as they happen.
Director Jan Alexandra Smith gives the play an absolutely minimalist production which only heightens its impact. Darren Burkett’s set consists of only three chairs behind which are four pieces of chipboard, each broken off at a different height. What this backdrop symbolizes is painfully clear by play’s end. Throughout the first and second sections of the action, Liza and Jack sit in the two end chairs leaving a one chair vacant between them. Throughout the first and second sections we come to understand that this vacant chair represents the absent Claire. Throughout these first two sections, there is no dialogue. Instead, Ross presents us with interleaved monologues of Liz and Jack. It seems like a flaw in acting or direction, but in the first and second sections Liz never once acknowledges the presence of Jack, while he, in contrast, pays rapt attention to all that Liz says. By the end of the play, we realize that this, too, is no flaw but rather an elegantly simple way to make a profound point.
The performances of all three actors are impeccable. In this play both Linda Prystawska as Liz and Robert King as Jack give the best performances I have ever seen from them. Though both have had long careers, I have not seen them cast in roles of such length and subtlety. It is an enormous pleasure to see how easily they meet the text’s challenges and demonstrate a talent that has not had the opportunity for such full expression.
Prystawska, from the beginning until the play’s final moments, gives us the portrait of a woman consumed with grief and anger. As the play progresses we come to see that in a strange way anger holds far greater sway over her than grief. The principal gesture Smith allows her is hugging herself, but this gesture looks less like self-consolation than an attempt to contain a rage that constantly threatens to burst out. When Liz states that Claire always seemed to get along better with Jack than with her, we have to wonder whether Liz has always been possessed by an off-putting anger.
In contrast to Prystawska’s Liz, King’s Jack is basically a jovial, self-deprecating person. King has Jack gaze with such rapt intensity at Liz while she speaks that I often found myself looking at Jack rather than Liz. When Jack expresses his anger at Claire’s and Josh’s deviousness and self-damaging habits, King brings out the sadness in Jack’s reactions far more than his anger.
The appearance of Josh in the last third of the play comes as a surprise. At first, I thought that there was no real need for us to meet Josh, since Liz and Jack’s memories of him were so strong. Then, once I noticed the parallel Ross was making with Greek tragic trilogies, I realized that meeting Josh is a necessity since, as with Orestes, this character, too, needed to be purged of his Furies.
Sean Dolan gives a beautifully understated performance as Josh. He plays Josh as someone, who very much like his grandparents, is unaccustomed to and slightly embarrassed by having to express his feelings. The only true dialogue in the play occurs in this last section where Liz and Josh try to reconnect. It is exquisitely written with Josh attempting to set forth the truth as he sees it while Liz keeps batting it away until she hears a plea in Josh’s voice that she can’t deny.
Life Without is a play that deserves the widest possible audience. Ross’s sensitive treatment of the difficult subject matter alone makes it a play that teens should see and discuss. Yet, beyond the subject matter, the way Ross has constructed the play asks fascinating questions about what precisely is occurring during the action and how it relates to traditional views of tragedy. This is a searing, utterly involving work which I hope will see a long, illustrious life.
Photo: Linda Prystawska as Liz and Sean Dolan as Josh; Linda Prystawska as Liz; Robert King as Jack. © 2023 Ann Baggley.
For tickets visit: www.herefornowtheatre.com.