Review: Mrs. Dexter and Her Daily by Joanna McClelland Glass

I felt really good about Canadian theatre Saturday night. Joanna McClelland Glass’ script is a tour de force of playwriting, particularly of writing monologues, a form that demands a great deal of ingenuity from the writer. There are several instances of dialogue in the first act; but the rest of the play, including the entire second act, is all incredibly skillful work for a solo actor on stage. I have one published monologue, “Old Wives Tale”, a short comic piece on which I laboured considerably; so I can appreciate the form and marvel at the playwright’s mastery of it.

I admired Glass’ management of the main action: at the end of Act I, she raises the stakes with Mrs. Dexter’s refusal to make the call that Peggy needs desperately. My Canadian theatre sensibility caused me to speculate to myself during the intermission that the play would end with a resolution: either Mrs. Dexter would somehow find it in herself at the final hour to make the call, or she would not; if she made it, she would either ensure Peggy’s happiness or destroy it; if she did not make it, it would be a profound tragic statement about her own life. If glass saw such machinations occurring in her audience’s mind, she ignored them most adroitly and took the plots in other directions.

In fact there were a lot of places in which Glass completely surmounted the hoary old paths that writers often follow in such circumstances: the lie that comes back to haunt, the misunderstanding that leads to comedy or tragedy, the tiny detail that becomes a gigantic plot point. Instead, her script revolves around the very genuine relationship that these two women have. And that makes the play genuinely interesting because it gives the actors something rich to explore and present to us. One of the elements that we become involved in is the neighbours on either side. The one is an estranged childhood friend, and the other is the woman who seduced Mr. Dexter.  These stories afford some wonderful comic ironies

The first act features Nichola Cavendish who has the stage to herself with the exception of occasional brief conversations with the offstage Mrs. Dexter, her employer. As Peggy Randall, the Daily or housekeeper, Cavendish manages a great deal of physical business such as disassembling the wiring of an electric fan and replacing it with a new cord, all the while enthralling us with extremely complicated stories of the lives around her and her own. Right on cue, at the end of this amazing process, she plugs in the fan and it works! Of course, the whole thing could have been faked by clever props people with batteries, but I seriously doubt that. By the end of Act I, we have come to admire Peggy and become engaged in her needs; as well, the way has been prepared for Fiona Reid’s entrance in act two by the back story Peggy has delivered for Mrs. Dexter.

The second act is Fiona Reid’s. Her character is designed with some interesting contrasts to Peggy’s. Where Peggy speaks in a blunt asyntactical English that sprinkles her speech with objective case pronoun subjects, Mrs. Dexter’s speech is a splendid cultivated Toronto/mid-Atlantic. In stark contrast, while Peggy’s language is coarse, it is not littered with obscenities, as one may stereotypically expect; instead, it is the elegantly decadent Mrs. D. who sprinkles vulgar expletives in her speech. Reid’s character possesses a languid helplessness that makes her tackling of cleaning the refrigerator all the more interesting: yes, even though she has a servant upon whom she makes unreasonable demands, she can clean a refrigerator in good grace. Peggy’s struggle to establish a palatable retirement reflects upon Mrs. D’s dilemma: Peggy’s retirement is dependent upon partnering with the recurrent villain in her life; her employer’s retirement fund is the equity in the possibly difficult-to-sell house. Reid establishes a wonderful character who treads the fine tense line between self-sufficiency and utter dependence.

It is this tension that allows the end of the play to be very finely vague. The end is not a Greek unities resolution, and that is good because it leaves us thinking. The characters have arrived  in a kind of passionate purgatory. We leave the theatre trailing wisps of the action because it has not all been defined and tied up for us. This is the finest kind of realism. How wonderfully Canadian.  I really liked hearing the familiar elements of a Toronto life of someone about my age. Her memories of wartime and subsequent years were part of my own male story. I really identified with this. I wonder though, how it would play for an American audience.

I like the set quite a bit: I like the design, colour, atmosphere. It is certainly representative of the Rosedale kitchen or two that I have been in, although the kitchen seems an unlikely place for the laundry in such a house. It was a useful situation so that Peggy would have more to do; but it is not very likely: such a kitchen would be in the basement.

The lighting was quite effective, except for the fact that the late afternoon sun and the morning sun, which were so prominent were both coming from the same direction, through the same window. That really seems too wrong.

These are quibbles. The purpose of theatre, I believe is to tell us our stories so that we can define ourselves. This play does this wonderfully, and takes on a fairly wide range of experience through two very diverse characters. Glass is an incredibly skilled writer, and she has been interpreted by a very skillful cast and director to create a substantial work.  I liked the play and this production of it. Well worth a look.

Production reviewed: February 27, 2010, 7:30 pm running time (including 20-ish minute intermission): 2 hours, 27 minutes

The National Arts Centre English Theatre Company presents
mrs. dexter
and her daily
World Premiere
February 17 – March 6, 2010
NAC Theatre

NICOLA CAVENDISH . . . Peggy Randall
FIONA REID . . . Edith Dexter
MARTI MARADEN . . . Director
PAM JOHNSON . . . Set Designer
MARSHA SIBTHORPE . . . Lighting Designer
PHILLIP CLARKSON . . . Costume Designer
LAURIE CHAMPAGNE . . . Stage Manager
RONAYE HAYNES . . . Assistant Stage Manager

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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