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So Much Theatre: Communion

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Photo courtesy of freefotuk from flickrPhoto courtesy of freefotuk from flickr

One of Canada’s foremost contemporary playwrights, the prolific Daniel MacIvor, has written yet another complex play where what takes place on stage is second in importance to what takes place in the audience member’s head.

In Communion a mother, Leda (Jenny Munday) tries to come to terms with her strained relationship with her adult daughter Annie (Stephanie MacDonald) through therapy, while Annie tries to come to terms with her own identity and her relationship with her mother first through extreme faith, and then by seeking to understand her mother’s relationship with her therapist Carolyn (Kathryn MacLellan), who herself is trying to come to terms with her inability to give people the help they seek.  The play consists of three dialogues: between Carolyn and Leda, between Leda and Annie, and between Annie and Carolyn.  These slowly reveal the events that have driven mother and daughter apart, the factors that will bring them back together, and the way in which they define themselves.

The KAZAN Co-op, which has put together this production, is clearly a close-knit collective; the way all of the elements of the scenic and costume design blend with the performers and enhance their performances is characteristic of the work of a group that has grown together to form a unit.  I could easily see Communion becoming a community theatre standard, primarily because the role of Leda provides a rich opportunity for an older female actor to take on a realistic role that requires considerable comic and dramatic skill.  Munday’s performance will, rightly, be the gold standard against which subsequent Ledas will be judged.  MacIvor’s text requires the actor to hold the audience’s attention for a protracted, nerve-wracking period of time through stage business alone, and then to run an emotional marathon from anxious despair to blissful serenity.  It could look like hard work—or, as in Munday’s case, it could look like the journey of a real human being.  Both MacDonald and MacLellan bring reality and depth to their roles as well, but Communion is mostly about Leda.

The third act, or the third dialogue—and it is difficult to discuss this piece in detail without giving away its many surprises—presents a bit of a problem.  It is absolutely necessary for the structure and symmetry of the piece, but the narrative continues well after the story proper reaches completion at the end of the second act.  In this way, it’s a little like the final scene of Death of a Salesman.  In a similar way, it’s hard to imagine either play without its final commentary.

Fundamentally, Communion is about the error of seeking to define oneself in terms of the external.  Therapy and dogmatic religion are characterized as ineffective, or at least incompletely effective, as is the search for meaning in or through the approval of a family member.  Only by stepping outside these ready roles, and to the degree that they do, do any of the characters achieve the sense of integrated identity that they seek.  On one level it’s refreshing to see redemption coupled with the rejection of faith, but this nihilistic philosophy of radical agnosticism won’t sit well with everyone, even if there’s no direct indictment of belief or faith per se.  Whether or not this is a universally palatable viewpoint, it’s more than worth considering; the climactic acceptance of faith is far too cliché in dramatic literature.

Communion features an ambitious set for the Studio space of the NAC, a brilliant text with memorable characters, and performances that etch them indelibly into one’s mind.  It’s puzzling that this is the first time a MacIvor play has been staged at the NAC, but the omission has been rectified in style.

Communion is playing at the National Arts Center (53 Elgin Street) until April 21. Tickets are $39.

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