GCTC’s second offering of the season, Adam Pettle’s Zadie’s Shoes, is billed as a comedy, but be advised that this play carries with it a considerable burden of sorrow, in the same way that Hamlet is quite witty and funny in places. The central characters, Ruth and Benjamin, have to face her apparently incurable cancer, and his apparently incurable gambling addiction. Add to that her two self obsessed sisters, a financial crisis, and Benjamin’s crisis of faith, and you have the makings of a pretty serious first act. I found the resultant tension almost unbearable, and I certainly wanted to see a payoff with somebody happy at the end of the play. Pettle refused to go in that direction, however, as he ended most of those tensions halfway through the second act, and took the play into some pretty intriguing territory in which the underlying themes of the play become more fully explored.
The dynamics of this play shift from the tension between the naïve wife’s cautious faith in her husband and his dreams of winning big at the track to the husband’s moral journey with the memory of his gambling father and grandfather. This is not a comedy in the facile sense of farce or standup comedy; it is a comedy in the sense that there is a journey of discovery, an ironic journey through a crucible of loss and pain and error toward a result that includes both delusory happiness and possible reformation.
There are moments in this play that are both sweetly touching and profound: the intense dialogues in shul between Benjamin and Eli oscillate between the venal (Eli’s racing tips) and the sublime (Eli as prophet). Peter Froehlich wonderfully juggles the dual task of being both Benjamin’s pathetic father, Jacob, and Benjamin’s fantastical “confessor” (Eli), jokester, and parable spinner in shul. His performance delivers nuances that are a delight to watch.
Dylan Roberts as “Bear” provides both tension and comic relief. His comic timing is impeccable; the character he played, indelible.
Playwright Pettle designed Ruth as a high-level competitive athlete; it is entirely fitting, and somewhat comical in a Canadian play that this sport should gradually be revealed as curling. Having been involved with a production of W. O. Mitchell’s “The Black Bonspiel of Wullie McCrimmon”, I am quite aware of the difficulty of detecting action in this board onstage; yet this production handled the problem ingeniously with a combination overhead projection, combined with brief blackouts of the physical action. But that isn’t all: this scene was juxtaposed against the seeing of the narrated horse race action at the track so that the position of the curling stones also illustrated the progress of the horserace. It was at this precise, beautifully written and staged moment in the middle of act two that the direction of the action changed. From here on, Ruth’s sisters focus on her instead of themselves, and Benjamin’s luck takes an ironical new direction.
The set design took on the challenge of depicting multiple settings, and it certainly worked in the case of the projected stained-glass for shul and in the case of the various public spaces; however, it was rather overwhelming for an apartment, and somehow the fact that the bedroom appeared only once in the play compromised the visual unity for me.
The three women and the play, although sisters, a very distinct characters; but the play is not designed to delve into their hearts, particularly since their fates are somewhat dismissed at the end of the play; they exist in a fantasy of holiday Mexico, pretty well ignoring all of their realities: Ruth is dying of cancer, Beth has lost her dream of curling victory (although she has reconciled to playing instead of winning), pregnant Lily wants to become an Aztec.
Aaron Willis played the angst driven Benjamin with angst and drive, but sadly not much else. I was hoping for a little more animation from him, some sardonic humor perhaps some wistfulness, but all I could think of was that he is an actor with presence somewhat in the mold of Tom Cruise: energy, but not much depth. He could learn a great deal from Peter Froehlich.
I am glad to see a full-length Canadian script that has more than one or two characters in it coming to the GCTC stage. The full house audience appeared to appreciate it too. Zadie’s Shoes is an intense, thoughtful play; this production lived up to most of its challenges most satisfactorily.
Until November 9, 2008 At GCTC.
Production seen: October 30, 8 pm
Running time about two hours plus intermission.
Director: Lise Ann Johnson
Cast: Peter Froehlich
Set and Costume Designer: Brian Smith
Lighting Designer: Jock Munro
Original Music and Sound Designer: Cathy Nosaty
Stage Manager: Kevin Waghorn
Apprentice Stage Manager: Adrienne McGrath
Production Dramaturg: Jordana Cox
Clarinette: Kevin Kenny
Crew: Heintz Regener, Dave Muir