At this time of year, most of us, whatever our religious beliefs, enjoy stories with messages of redemption and happy endings. Charles Dickens knew what he was doing when he wrote A Christmas Carol, as did Frank Capra when he directed It’s a Wonderful Life. And so did Canada’s prolific playwright Norm Foster when he penned Ethan Claymore, which is playing at The Gladstone until December 22.
Ethan Claymore is a struggling egg farmer and amateur painter. He’s been a bit of a recluse ever since his beloved wife Jenny died of leukemia. But on the 5th anniversary of Jenny’s death, his ebullient neighbour Douglas McLaren hatches a plan to “lead Ethan back to the realm of the living”, primarily by fixing Ethan up with the new schoolteacher, Teresa Pike. Ethan wants no part of this, but Douglas is determined and so, we soon find out, is Teresa.
A simple story. Then the ghost (or as he refers to himself, the shadow being) arrives. He’s Martin, Ethan’s long-estranged brother, who recently dropped dead of a heart attack. A rather nasty piece of work – obnoxious, pushy, selfish – but then he’s a used car salesman!
The Powers That Be (he calls them the Three Ladies) have given him an assignment to set someone on the right path before he will be allowed to continue to wherever he’ll be spending eternity. Trouble is, the Three Ladies are so busy (it’s the week before Christmas – a busy season for redemption) that they haven’t told Martin whose life he’s supposed to fix. So he shows up in Ethan’s farmhouse and adds his pressure tactics to Douglas’s.
During the course of several days, Ethan and Martin relive the dreadful incident which precipitated their estrangement. In flashbacks they see their teenage selves and their father.
They also hear their father repeat his rule for living: “Family and friends are the two most important things in life”.
Of course you can see how the plot is going to unwind, but getting there is a lot of fun.
The director of the play, John P. Kelly (who recently won the Capital Critics’ award for last season’s satire November) shows his usual dab hand at comedy. Foster’s one-liners frequently hit home and on opening night had the entire audience laughing companionably together.
This production demonstrates that, if you get the casting right, you’re halfway home with the play. Each cast member fit his or her character very well. Tim Oberholzer is believable as a man who has withdrawn from society to nurse his grief, and is now clumsily trying to remember how to talk with an attractive woman. Sarah Finn is thoroughly delightful as Teresa – often putting her foot in her mouth, blurting out her private thoughts to Ethan (“No, not a friend! I have other plans for you!”), yet determined to kindle a romantic spark with Ethan. David Frisch is very fine as the snide, self-centred ghost, while the young actors who play the teenage versions of Ethan and Martin – Nicholas Hutchison and Draeven McGowan – generally rein in the histrionics.
But the real star of the show is the incomparable Paul Rainville as Douglas. From his first moments on stage you can’t take your eyes off of him. With polish and sass, he delivers humourous line after humourous line. “I’m married – I don’t have to impress anyone” was my personal favourite. And what he does with a glass of rum in the second half … well, you’ll just have to go see this for yourself!
This is a warm and funny play, and a delightful way to celebrate the Christmas season.
Ethan Claymore is playing at The Gladstone until December 22. Regular tickets are $34 with tax. Discounts available for students and seniors.