"Think of something that makes you happy. Think happy thoughts."
So goes the mantra of Margaret (Barbara Gordon), the widow and matriarch of a small, dysfunctional family.
Unable to confront, cope or even intervene in any issue that resembles negative, Margaret chooses to live in her own cheery reality, free from awkward unpleasantries, and, as you'd expect, any semblance of real-life.
We've all met people like Margaret - individuals who are so uniformly high-spirited that it goes beyond the spread of good karma to sheer annoyance and pity. I see these people and think "How do they get through life?!" And therein lies the rub.
As the play unfolds we learn that the cheerful sins of the mother are visited upon the children. Christian (Martin Happer) has taken on the deluded avoidance tactics of his mother, to his detriment, and Cassie (Maev Beaty), unable to honestly communicate with her family, acts out in sexually explicit and sometimes cruel ways in order to shock and be noticed.
All of these family values are played out around the strife of Christian's fragile wife Stasia's pregnancy. Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet) is obsessively convinced there is something wrong with her unborn child, and goes so far with her belief that she refuses to see the baby when it's born and is instead, checked into the pysch ward of the hospital.
Naturally, all of these scenarios are played down, ignored or glossed over by Margaret and the only truthful insight we're given into the entire familial mess is from BellaDonna, the gossipy neighbour, with a caring heart (an excellent Maria Vacratsis).
Cullis' play has some real depth to it; she asks the question as to whether happiness and honesty can indeed co-exist, and also effectively demonstrates how powerful a tool the human mind can be in manufacturing truths and in convincing one's self that these truths are reality and always have been.
I wish that the play had stuck to these ideas. They are simple, authentic, widely understood and relevant.
Instead the play was bogged down with other ideas, ones I felt were placed on the play rather than coming from somewhere within it.
The term "gratuitous technique" was offered to me by a friend and I think it's the most apt description of what happened. The characters would deliver dialogue straight to the audience, then suddenly turn to each other and talk, or they would be having what appeared to be a monologue, indoors, but another character who is outdoors, would comment on their words. There was no context or uniformity of space.
Then there was useless movement - oddly timed standing or moving from point A to point B with no seen/heard motivation to do so, and there were distinct lighting techniques that seemed extraneous to the story and were distracting.
I felt like it was a contest in directorial techniques and Kelly Thorton wanted to see how many she could include in one play and none of them seemed to enhance the story.
Following THE PENELOPIAD, a play where the direction was paramount to the effectiveness of the storytelling and a challenge that Thorton rose to with appropriate panache, it seems bizarre to me that the direction of her next play could seem so heavy-handed here.
I guess you can't win 'em all. But don't tell Margaret.
THE HAPPY WOMAN is on until March 24 at the Berkeley St. Theatre (26 Berkeley St). For tickets click here or call: 416-368-3110.