Review: Toronto, Missississippi

Theatre-goers have two reasons to rejoice in the coming weeks as Vancouver’s two major theatre companies present two different plays from award-winning Canadian playwright and Vancouverite, Joan MacLeod.

First up is the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre presentation of MacLeod’s Toronto, Mississippi, a co-production with Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, Ontario and directed by another local star of the theatre scene, Dean Paul Gibson.

Set in a Toronto middle-class neighbourhood in 1987, Jhana (Meg Roe) is a developmentally challenged 18 year old young woman who is also recently becoming aware of her own sexuality.  Simultaneously trying to prepare her for life in the outside world and protect her, Jhana’s mother Maddie (Colleen Wheeler) and her border and best friend Bill (Alessandro Juliani), attempt to teach her some basic survival skills and help her to deal with these new feelings she is experiencing.

Jhana’s father King (William MacDonald), who left the family a decade ago, makes one of his infrequent appearances to Toronto having arrived in nearby Buffalo for one of his gigs as an Elvis impersonator.  Inserting himself back into the family appears to be rather easy for King at first glance but all is not what it seems and ultimately Maddie must make a decision whether King is better as an intermittent father or as a more permanent part of their lives.

Alessandro Juliani as Bill and Meg Roe as Jhana in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Toronto, Mississippi
Alessandro Juliani as Bill and Meg Roe as Jhana in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Toronto, Mississippi

Meg Roe’s portrayal of the Downs and autistic Jhana is definitely the highlight of this show and full credit must be given to both her and Director Dean Paul Gibson who manage a character that so easily could have stepped over the line; Roe plays the developmentally challenged Jhana with such reality but tempered with great respect.

Alessandro Juliani’s Bill gives a perfect balance between the other three and is the only character, besides Roe, that appears the most relaxed and comfortable with their character.  His likeability here is intense and the chemistry between him and Jhana is both uplifting and very real.

Colleen Wheeler’s Maddie is nearly perfect as she moves through all the love, sorrow and anger that it takes to raise a child like Jhana.  But where Roe and Director Gibson pushed Jhana to the line, we did find Wheeler crossed it at one point during one particular intensely angry scene.

MacDonald’s King is solid although we couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in his Elvis and were quite surprised to see his lip synching to be less than believable.   We readily acknowledge Elvis impersonators that can act are probably not an easy commodity (except maybe in Vegas) but couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed.

Cameron Porteous’ incredibly realistic set design is a treat and sound designer Anna-Maria Steger does a great job with the various musical elements in the show although we’re still trying to figure out how the Beatles and Anne Murray fit into this “soundtrack”.

Were it not for Roe’s wonderful portrayal of Jhana, Toronto, Mississippi would not have been quite as effective in taking MacLeod’s absurd combination of a developmentally challenged teen, a “cheerfully morose” poet and a Canadian Elvis impersonator and ultimately tell a wonderful story of the power of family and love.

Toronto, Mississippi continues at the Vancouver Playhouse through March 21st.

Visit the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company website for tickets and information.

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