NEWEST POLLOCK PRODUCTION A THEATRE CALGARY SIGNATURE
If there is a nursing home for crotchety, proudly independent Prairie centenarian characters, Sharon Pollock’s Gampy will be sitting in the rocking chair next to W.O. Mitchell’s Daddy Sherry.
Daddy Sherry is the 111-yearold curmudgeon from Mitchell’s The Kite who proudly trumpeted, among other things, that he was the world’s oldest man.
In Pollock’s newest play, Blow Wind High Water, running at Theatre Calgary until Sept. 30, the central character is Gampy, who might just have a couple years on Daddy Sherry.
Gampy and Daddy Sherry are so lovable, accessible and endearing because they are true Prairie archetypes. They overflow with no-nonsense bluster and, as much as the younger generation might hate to admit, they have that biting insight that only comes with age.
Gampy’s problem is he’s grappling with dementia so he can’t pass on the insights and knowledge so desperately needed by his grandson Doug, whose life, like his leg, is broken.
Doug’s broken limb is just one of numerous metaphors in Pollock’s play. There is also the storm brewing outside the house that Pollock uses to mirror the storms raging in the lives of the family members. Then there is a wondrous, magical, impish character named Gwynt whom only Gampy can see, hear and communicate with.
Any time Gampy (Stephen Hair) and Gwynt (Julie Orton) are onstage alone together, Blow Wind High Water soars.
As Ariel was to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Gwynt is Gampy’s eyes and ears and, as much as his jumbled mind annoys her, Gwynt loves the aged man dearly.
I predict there will be much debate as to who or what Gwynt really is, but I think the answer lies in the fact the Gaelic word means wind.
Hair’s portrayal of the aged, confused and tormented patriarch in Blow Wind illustrates beautifully how suited he is for an upcoming production. In the spring he will play Lear for The Shakespeare Company, which could well be the role of a lifetime.
At its heart, Blow Wind High Water is a sprawling family drama. I liked the play best when Pollock toiled in the terrain of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge, and least when she skirted the kind of political world Britain’s David Hare so loves and Theater Cal-
gary showed us last year with his Skylight.
Pollock also visits the playful world of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, as Gampy and Gwynt do some time-travelling and skip between reality and fantasy.
Pollock and her director, Simon Mallet, get the best performances from the supporting cast whenever the play dwells in American realism.
Gampy’s grandson Doug (Doug McKeag) has a scene with his own son Teddy (Tyrell Crews) that bristles with fierce humour when the two men confront a family skeleton that finally falls out of the closet. For me, it recalled a similar scene from Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, like that predecessor, it says so much about tolerance and acceptance.
There is also a scene between Doug’s wife Eva ( Valerie Planche) and their daughter Maggie (Alana Hawley) which is equally powerful, candid and honest and, in both cases, there is no hint of artifice in the performances.
We get real people facing real issues, which means audiences’ sympathies will ping-pong between father and son and mother and daughter.
The story unfolds with Gampy’s company, now run by his grandson Doug, having gone from servicing coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass to supplying equipment for oil companies while also expanding into a construction company.
Doug and his partner Frankie (Nadine Roden) have also been dabbling in foreign interests that are in danger of imploding because of the corrupt businessmen and politicians they deal with.
Similarly, Doug’s construction company is building a barrier to protect his business from the impending flood at the expense of neighbouring lands belonging to several First Nations families.
Teddy’s raging against his father’s involvement in Third World countries’ affairs and the lives of his neighbours does not ring nearly as true as when Teddy (Crews) is defending himself.
The same is true for Roden, who is all thunder without any real lightning.
The spokesperson for the First Nations families is Kevin (Marshall Vielle), a lawyer more involved in Doug’s family than Doug could imagine.
Vielle spends most of his stage time on a cellphone, though he does have a beautiful moment at the end of the show when he relates a creation story that puts so much of the play’s drama and humanity into focus.
Narda McCarroll has created a rather magical set that allows furniture and even people to rise up through the floor.
Director Mallet is aware Pollock’s play is essentially a series of intimate confrontations so, to avoid making it seem claustrophobic on such a big stage, he uses every opportunity to scatter the cast around the stage, creating some pretty impressive tableaus.
Near the end of the play, at the height of the storm threatening to unleash a flood, the family members realize they must retreat to the roof if they are to survive.
What they don’t know is Gampy and Gwynt are already there.
The tableau of Gampy and Gwynt atop the house with Kevin trying to break through the roof to let the family join them should be pure theatrical magic. Instead, Mallet and McCarroll plunge the stage into darkness while they bring that roof onto the stage.
We absolutely need to see that happen using Michael Walton’s lighting and Andrew Blizzard’s sound design to truly enhance the moment. Lazy direction and design ruined the effect Pollock was going for with that roof scene.
Though Pollock deals with many hot-button topics, she does so with humour that never minimizes their importance and that is part of the genius of her writing.
Blow Wind High Water is a high water mark in Theatre Calgary’s illustrious 50 years because it shows how committed the company is to showcasing local talent, from writers and designers to performers.
Blow Wind High Water is a perfect season opener for Theatre Calgary because it showcases how truly talented local performers, writers and directors are, writes Louis B. Hobson.