Edmonton Journal

REVIVAL OF LEMOINE’S PITH! MIXES HUMOUR, HEARTACHE

- TOM MURRAY

Jack Vail is on a mission.

He's a sailor on shore leave in Providence, R.I., and the local Presbyteri­an church seems like a good place for him to find the “society of ladies and gentlemen together and the eloquent communicat­ion, which takes place in situations of moral constraint.” It's there that Vail (Andrew MacDonald- Smith) makes the acquaintan­ce of Miss Nancy Kimble (Jana O'Connor), who, in between bites of bumbleberr­y pie during the after-service social, tells Vail her sad story.

As the longtime housekeepe­r for Mrs. Virginia Tilford (Kristin Johnston), she's had to watch as her employer sinks further and further into an unremittin­g gloom.

It seems Mrs. Tilford has been waiting a decade for the return of Mr. Tilford, who left seeking a silver mine in South America. Mr. Tilford will not be coming home, but Mrs. Tilford cannot accept it.

This stirs Vail into action. His plan is to shake Mrs. Tilford out of stasis and accept that Mr. Tilford is gone forever, eventually convincing Mrs. Tilford the best way to deal with her grief is to track down her husband. Road trip!

That's the basic premise behind the latest revival of Stewart Lemoine's Pith!, taking place at the Varscona Theatre until Feb. 25. One of the playwright's most feted works, Pith! is by turns daffy, warm, sweet and achingly mournful, often all within one scene. It's also playful because the trip to Ecuador takes place in Mrs. Tilford's own living room, with all three characters making use of only their and the audience's imaginatio­ns to convey setting. Well, that and four chairs plus a

Victrola playing the music of soprano Rosa Ponselle.

Such a simple concept, such a bare set, yet it's engrossing. As with the screwball comedies of the 1930s, you forget the basic idea is somewhat ludicrous because you want it to happen. You want Mrs. Tilford to find her way out of her quandary, you want something funny and insane and off-the-wall to happen in this woman's prim and proper life.

MacDonald- Smith, who played Vail in the 2012 revival, is key here. With a suitcase full of clothing he needs to quickly come up with a number of random characters at the whim of Mrs. Tilford and Miss Kimble's whimsical, on-the-spot inventions. There's the sleazy businessma­n, the Lothario, the annoying scientist, crossing paths and interactin­g with the two respectabl­e Rhode Island ladies.

Vail is the one shepherdin­g the action along, but it's O'Connor as Miss Kimble and Johnston as Mrs. Tilford who are slowly filling it in, gently moving Mrs. Tilford along to a necessary epiphany.

There's delicate work being done here, as all three actors navigate Lemoine's ornamented language as much as they navigate the bumpy train rides and treacherou­s river voyages.

That being said, there's also less delicate work being done here; Lemoine isn't afraid of a little physical comedy, and if you don't laugh out loud during a number of those segments, that might mean you're dead inside. Sorry.

 ?? MARC J. CHALIFOUX ?? The latest version of the Stewart Lemoine play Pith! at the Varscona Theatre stars, from left, Kristin Johnston, Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Jana O'Connor.
MARC J. CHALIFOUX The latest version of the Stewart Lemoine play Pith! at the Varscona Theatre stars, from left, Kristin Johnston, Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Jana O'Connor.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada