Theatre review: Turkey in the Woods is full of surprises

Tales of dysfunctional families and our relationships to them are dime a dozen; what sets Jan Derbyshire’s Turkey in the Woods apart from the rest are the surprises it contains and Cherise Clarke’s masterful performance.

Jan Derbyshire's Turkey in the WoodsSomewhat of an oxymoron within the lesbian community (one hears), commitment-phobe Hale returns to the small Alberta home that she grew up in at the urging of her therapist.  It’s time, she reasons, to confront her past once and for all and move forward with her life.  Abandoning her long-term girlfriend Peach, she meets up with her mother and sister in the woods for a very untraditional Thanksgiving dinner.

One of the biggest strengths of Derbyshire’s new work is the unexpected and sometimes very funny surprises that she throws at us at every opportunity.  Seeding just enough doubt along the way we are never quite sure what is fact or what are simply coping mechanisms for the familial dysfunction that pervades this small clan’s worlds.

In a quartet of strong performances, Cherise Clarke conjures one of the most believably quirky characters I have seen on stage in a long time.  As Hale’s sister, she portrays a perfect balance of vulnerability and invincibility, traversing a fine line between being mad at the life she has created for herself and a sense of desperation at that realization.

Taking on the role of Hale herself, Derbyshire infuses her with a bewildering realization that, as Peach reminds her late in the play, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to search one’s past for the justification of being an asshole today.

As the mother with her own laundry list of justifications, Suzie Payne gives new meaning to a woman in denial, hoping that the challenges of life will simply go away if she believes it hard enough.

As girlfriend Peach, Morgan Brayton has the toughest job here, arriving late in the game to help wrap things up with a feel-good ending that seemed wholly out of place against the backdrop of the dysfunction that preceded it.   The only character Derbyshire allows any genuine emotion, Brayton is never allows herself to become maudlin.   (And for those that are into that kind of thing, Derbyshire gets her wish with a really hot kiss in the end).

While director James Fagan Tait gets some great performances from his actors, staging in the black box of the Roundhouse Community Centre does seem to cause a few problems.  For much of the first 20 minutes and at other points throughout, Payne finds herself oddly with her back to us, and the final confrontation between Brayton and Derbyshire is so static at times that it belies the emotions of his actors.

Small staging quibbles aside though, there are enough surprises to make this a fresh and sometimes funny take on the dysfunctional family genre.  It is anything but a turkey.

4 out of 5 Stars Turkey in the Woods

By Jan Derbyshire.  Directed by James Fagan Tait.  A Screaming Weenie Productions, Queer Arts Festival, Cranberry Sauce Co-op Production presentation.  On stage at the Roundhouse Community Centre through August 15, 2012.  Visit http://queerartsfestival.ca for tickets and information.

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