Few things are more distressing in a theatre reviewer’s daily round than a show that excites neither wild praise nor outright condemnation. When a play is “OK” — to wit, Beverley Cooper’s Janet Wilson Meets the Queen now making its world premiere at the Great Canadian Theatre Company — it’s tough to know what to say about it.
This show should have traction. As we know from Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott that played the NAC in 2013, Cooper can write in an empathetic, trenchant style as she confronts complex social issues through compelling characters.
In the case of Janet Wilson Meets the Queen, both the characters (all confronting their own, intertwined crises) and the issues (they are multiple) kind of resonate, but not really.
Janet (an appropriately stiff-limbed Marion Day) is a late-1960s Vancouver housewife whose chipper manner and fixed smile cover a growing anxiety as the world shifts beneath her knitted-slipper clad feet.
Her relationship with her husband, who’s seen only briefly and in profile at the top of the show, is non-existent.
Her sulky 15-year-old daughter Lily (Katie Ryerson, who could probably play a tree stump with verve) is coming of age and eager to break the fetters of conformity and male-dominated culture that give shape and a fragile security to her mother’s world.
Janet’s mother Granny (Beverley Wolfe, crotchety as all get out), who lives with the family, pries wider the cracks in her daughter’s meticulously controlled life by speaking her mind, complaining about the food, and pillorying in very funny fashion the Royal Family who are about to visit Vancouver. That pillorying sits especially ill with Janet, a staunch monarchist and high-flyer in the local IODE who will be presenting a bouquet to Queen Elizabeth II.
Finally, there’s Robbie (Tony Adams), Janet’s draft-dodging hippie nephew from California who appears in his aunt’s hallowed kitchen wreathed in beads and marijuana smoke and dopey pronouncements about being a free spirit. The kind of guy who would sleep with anything that’s sentient, he’s soon making moves on his wide-eyed young cousin Lily. Under director Andrea Donaldson, Adams plays him over the top so when a disturbing shift comes in his story, it’s too abrupt and the Robbie who emerges isn’t credible.
There’s other stuff going on including philandering by Janet’s husband, and an ugly back story involving Robbie’s father and his cowed wife, Janet’s sister.
Also on hand — an astronaut. As the play’s storyline moves from 1967 to 1969, the year of the first Apollo moon landing, he drifts in and out of Janet’s home, briefly awakening in the quotidian-bound housewife a longing to shoot for the moon. Presumably meant to be a striking metaphor — his unearthly, white-suited presence contrasts with the play’s naturalistic set designed by Roger Schultz – the guy is just gimmicky.
All this is enough to keep you from drifting off to sleep, but that’s a far cry from being scintillating. The script, despite being well-acted, is stodgy and workmanlike, its components including mentions of Trudeaumania and Shake ‘N Bake and ookpiks more a kind of name-checking meant to evoke a time and place than a successful effort to show how Janet’s life is a pastiche of superficiality beneath which a growing darkness looms.
In the end, Janet achieves an unexpected dignity amid the rubble of her life. It’s too bad we don’t much care.
Continues until May 8. Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca
on: April 22, 2016 | Last Updated: April 22, 2016 12:14 PM EDT
Janet Wilson Meets The Queen is running at the GCTC. Andrew Alexander
Janet Wilson Meets the Queen
A Great Canadian Theatre Company production
At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre