As a natural pessimist, I get antsy when a director stands in front of the audience at a season launch and announces that he’s directing a play because he was asked to and likes to work, giving no details as to the plot or the nature of the play, or even what makes it special to him. This antsiness curdles into stark dread when the play in question is written by Daniel MacIvor, and thus is quite possibly a work of genius.
On opening night, the revelation comes as decidedly more than a relief: director Stewart Matthews has as much of an understanding of the value and power of a pleasant surprise as MacIvor does, rendering this production of How It Works absolutely unmissable (and quite possibly worth seeing twice).
The story itself starts with Al (David Whiteley), a Halifax police officer, on a first date with Christine (Michelle LeBlanc), an apparently rough-around-the-edges drugstore cashier. Al’s nineteen-year-old daughter Brooke (Hannah Kaya) lives sometimes with him, sometimes with his vain ex-wife Donna (Geneviève Sirois), and sometimes she disappears altogether. Brooke’s parents are powerless to understand all but the symptoms of her internal struggle, but Christine sees through the veneer and offers to help. The root cause of Brooke’s intractable behaviour lies within a narrative that stretches all the way back to Al and Donna’s first date. The action of How It Works culminates in a 48-hour showdown between Brooke and Christine, who reveals the secrets of her own past in a bid to free Brooke from herself.
MacIvor creates each of his characters with a distinct voice. They each have a set of objectives and a preferred way of pursuing them. There is tension between each and every pair of characters, and they each use at least one of the others in their attempts to get what they want from each other. The dynamics in this play flow organically from complexity of character. As a direct consequence, Sirois and LeBlanc in particular are treated to more rich and complex roles than we are used to seeing them play.
The performances surpass even what I would normally expect from these actors. Whether it’s due to the writing, the directing, their specific suitability for their roles, or some combination of these factors doesn’t matter. Whiteley’s Al is at once warmheartedly awkward and hopelessly defeated. We are meant to simultaneously dislike and sympathize with Donna, and Sirois conveys her self-conscious vanity with the appropriate degree of fragility. As Brooke, Kaya is completely credible as the quintessential tormented teenager. LeBlanc gets a chance to distinguish herself in a powerful role that drives the action, although once or twice her diction requires effort to understand. Together, they make a crack ensemble.
There are two (correct) paths a director can take with a well-crafted text. The first, and safest, is to stage it with as few trimmings, and as little interpretation, as possible—thereby avoiding the risk of taking anything away from the text. Matthews has chosen the other, narrower path, open only to a director who has understood such a text to the degree that the set, sound, and every other decision made serve to enhance and to throw into sharp relief the very essence of the play. The deconstructed set-laid-bare (there is no backstage) is a play on the title; movable curtain panels permit one fluid motion from beginning to end, with gracefully choreographed scene transitions set to fantastically appropriate music. Matthews even manages to infuse what are arguably the four most overplayed Canadian songs of all time (only two of which are specifically indicated in the text) with new life. This, folks, is how you do interstitial music. In the end you have a set, transitions, and staging easily of comparable calibre to any NAC studio production.
MacIvor’s gift for making exposition natural is evident in the first act, but it is after intermission that we are unexpectedly treated to a different take on the events described. In a play that highlights the relationship between events and the stories they inspire, this technique is perfect. MacIvor also knows when to make an excursion into absurdity for the sake of realism, and Matthews has the knack for putting it on stage. As in Communion, MacIvor makes use of the awkward silences in conversation to build dramatic tension and illustrate the struggle to communicate which is a recurring theme in his work; Matthews and the cast have a collective sense of timing that renders these moments as deliciously uncomfortable as they were intended.
How It Works deals with internal struggle. It deals with abuse, addiction, and recovery. It does it with humour, sensitivity, and a deep understanding of—coupled with a profound respect for—individual humanity.
I understand now why Matthews didn’t say very much about this play. You just have to see it.
How it Works plays the Gladstone Theatre until October 20.