Pushing the envelope and our notion of theatre is what Vancouver’s Electrical Company Theatre is all about. But where previous works relied heavily on technology and theatrical magic, its newest show, All The Way Home, is so intensely intimate that the only magic necessary comes from the players themselves.
Based on James Agee’s 1957 novel A Death in the Family, Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play has been adapted by Electric Company’s co-founder Kim Collier and chronicles the life and death among the Follet clan in 1915’s Kamloops. There is no secret that the family is headed for grief (not the least of which is the clue from the title of Agee’s novel), but any fear of the story becoming overly sentimental is quickly forgotten under the deft hand of director Collier, some truly remarkable performances from this cast and an intimacy that puts the audience in and among the family’s life.
Turning convention on its ear, Collier places the audience of 140 on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with her actors. Some sat on chairs, others benches and a foursome even found themselves at the family’s kitchen table; a few sat on cushions in the living room and around the edges of the other rooms of the family home. The family home and other locales in the story were so weaved into the fabric of the audience that the delineation between spectator and actor seemed to disappear. We were given such an up-close and personal view that at one point I found myself wanting to reach out and hug one of the cast members that I found sitting at my feet during a particularly emotional scene. That it all felt so natural and un-staged is a testament to Collier and set designer Marshall McMahen’s work.
Of course with that intimacy comes a risk that every action, every reaction by the actors on stage would be hyper-scrutinized by the audience. Where a traditional staging may allow a missing smile or missing beat to be forgiven or unnoticed, here the actors don’t have that leisure; we are on top of them, we are watching for the honesty in their faces and their performances and, without a single exception, this cast delivers.
Leading the way is Meg Roe as Mary, the young mother and wife whose performance once again solidifies her as one of our city’s finest actors. Jonathon Young brings such radiance to his role as her husband Jay that it was almost blinding at times. As the pair’s son, Jordan Wessels brings a wonderful innocence as the child dealing with the mysteries of death and life. As the functional drunk, Haig Sutherland manages to make us feel sorry for the rather detestable Ralph and Nicola Lipman, who plays both family matriarch and the aunt every young boy wishes they had is simply divine, managing to elicit the first of several tears from me playing a woman who doesn’t speak and with her back to me.
The remainder of this stellar cast is equally at the top of their form here including Alessandro Juliani, Julia Mackey, Tom McBeath, Gabrielle Rose, Donna White and George Young. The young chorus of Sean Bray, Joseph Gustafson, Julian Levy, Dexter Storey and Elias Verheyen are a delight.
My one complaint here is in McMahen’s efforts to provide seating for the audience that is in keeping with the time and place it made for a rather uncomfortable night. I admit to worrying that by the end I wasn’t going to be able to pull myself fully erect from the hard and backless bench we sat on for the show’s two plus hours.
But with so many beautifully realized moments I am willing to use the pain in my back today as a reminder of this glorious experience. As Mary realizes at the end of her own journey last night, pain can give way to great rewards.
By Tad Mosel. Directed by Kim Collier. An Electric Company Theatre production. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through Sunday, January 14, 2012. Visit http://www.electriccompanytheatre.com for tickets and information.