Content warning: this review discusses suicide.
Death comes for us all in the end.
It doesn’t matter how we spend the years or minutes leading up to that pivotal moment – whether we’ve lived recklessly, lovingly, or cynically – nor does it particularly matter the precise cause of our final breaths. It’s the great equalizer, death, a topic playwright Morris Panych has frequently explored in his work. His 1989 play 7 Stories is his most famous, an odyssey through suicide and nosy neighbours and a mainstay of the Canadian dramatic canon. In Withrow Park, now playing at Tarragon Theatre, Panych leaps back into bed with his thoughts on suicide, and more broadly, death – and in the more than three decades since 7 Stories’ first premiere, those thoughts have evolved.
Withrow Park wields some of the trademark whimsy that Panych fans will spot quickly – a subversion of the kitchen-sink play through interspersed moments of fractured reality – but unlike in 7 Stories, it’s subtler here, and tempered by a less quirky sense of comedy and place. Indeed, the play unfolds near the titular greenspace south of Danforth Avenue and east of Broadview, inside a house whose colour and patterning mimics Delft blue china. Structurally, something’s not quite right – doorways tilt in strange directions, and large tree branches hang over the home’s sitting area. Much like the house’s aging inhabitants, the living room is dated and sparse, overlooking the park with its beautiful bay windows (the excellent set is by longtime Panych collaborator Ken MacDonald).
And those windows turn out to be a driving force of the play, a portal for snooping by sisters-slash-roommates Marion and Janet, as well as Janet’s ex-husband Arthur (Corrine Koslo, Nancy Palk, and Benedict Campbell, respectively). Marion in particular, crotchety and blithely suicidal, takes glee in spying on the neighbours – one of whom talks too much on the phone and has a pet whippet – and she frequently evokes Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched. Janet looks outside, too, but she has other concerns: she’s slowly going blind, and, more pressingly, her 66-year-old ex-husband has recently come to the conclusion that he’s gay, having made a failed attempt to leave her for another man.
It’s when a mysterious stranger named Simon comes to the door that things turn sticky – and where the play starts to lose its footing.
We never really learn much about the young man, played coyly by Johnathan Sousa. Dressed in a manner that suggests he may be experiencing homelessness (costumes by Joyce Padua), he may or may not have studied psychology at Carleton; he may or may not have been stabbed to death in Withrow Park; and he may or may not be an object of Arthur’s desire. Simon teeters between life and death, and realism and absurdity, breaking the fourth wall to address us directly. It’s an intriguing device that didn’t quite work for me: despite the specificity of the rest of the play, we never quite know who Simon is, or what his significance might be in the context of Arthur and the two sisters.
To my delight, though, that quibble doesn’t much interfere with the enjoyability of the play. Under Jackie Maxwell’s direction, comedic quips fly easily between the trio of housemates, slaloming between non-sequiturs about squirrels and cranky old-people-isms about basmati rice. The cast ably handles the layers prescribed to them by the text (though it’s perhaps Koslo who’s dealt the most compelling psyche, caught between fatalism and love), and the chemistry between Palk and Campbell is lovely. Each actor approaches the looming deaths of their characters in a different manner – some opt for humour, others a more despairing regret – and all in all, it’s a pretty enjoyable play, if one that could dig deeper into its underused fourth figure.
Withrow Park won’t work for everyone, but for the most part, I found it to be a breezy two hours at the theatre, with more than a few laughs to spare along the way. I’ve always had questions about 7 Stories, and I wondered with some trepidation if Withrow Park might employ similarly stilted dialogue and caprices in its musings on life and death. But no – with time has come a sharper, more crowd-pleasing cadence and sense of humour for Panych, and as we all approach the end of our lives, who could say no to a well-done comedy?
Withrow Park runs at Tarragon Theatre until December 10. Tickets are available here.
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