Half Life isn’t a play that provides easy answers. Indeed, it’s a play that distinctly provides very few answers to the large, often philosophical questions it poses. On the surface, it’s the tale of a burgeoning love between two nursing home residents. Scratch below the surface, though and you realize that writer John Mighton has created a work that transcends its immediate topic to deal with larger themes. It’s a play about ageing and the way our society treats its older members; it’s about memory and the bittersweet process of remembering and forgetting; and it’s about the way our own psyches and events impact our treatment of those around us. It’s a multi-layered play that requires an understanding of and empathy for not only its themes, but the human spirit. Director Jim McNabb shows he has both in his wonderfully sensitive, thoughtful adaptation for the Ottawa Little Theatre.
Half Life opens with two middle-aged divorcees meeting in the waiting room of a nursing home. Donald (played by Bryan Morris), a scientist specializing in neural research, is there to visit his frail mother, Clara (Marjory Bryce) a ritual he performs almost every day. Anna (Linda Webster) is there to sign in her father, Patrick (Dan Baran), who has of late become depressive and is an increasing danger to himself. When Clara and Patrick meet, the two are drawn to each other and both seem to remember a brief, but meaningful affair between them during the Second World War. The two become increasingly close and fall deliciously, madly in love. However, Patrick, worried about his increasingly frail mother and still reeling from the recent death of his father, is full of trepidation and refuses to consent to their marriage, which has a great effect on both involved parties.
The beauty of Half Life is that, although complex in execution, its story is simple and straightforward. Major themes are woven throughout the play, some more obviously than others. McNabb has not only picked up on these subtleties, but has used every medium available to him to reinforce them. His blocking, set, and lighting are all quite simple. However, as seems to happen most often, it is the simple approach, free of trappings and gimmicks, that allows the text to speak loudest. The director lets the play settle into the mundane, often heartbreakingly bitter-sweet reality of the life presented in the play. One of the central, and most frustrating, aspects of the play is the way it portrays society’s infantilization of senior citizens. This is most clear when Reverend Hill (played by Barry Daley) or Donald speak to Clara. They are both is well-meaning, sweet people, but ultimately patronizing. McNabb lets these themes shine through.
The set and lighting are simple and multi-leveled, mimicking the structure of the play. The memory flashes of Clara and Patrick’s courtship is show in the background on a higher level with dim lighting while their two older versions talk or dance in the foreground. This creates a beautiful atmosphere and truly embodies the idea of a memory, which is so central to the play. Otherwise, both set and lighting are uncomplicated, again letting the play speak for itself.
Majory Bryce delivers a stunning performance as Clara. She truly embodies the character’s frailty, but also her optimism, strength, and love. In the moment that she breaks down, though it only lasts a couple of seconds, the collective heart of the theatre broke down with her. Beautiful, brave performance well suited for a beautiful and brave character. Dan Baran’s Patrick is convincing in his care for Clara, with little glances and body language that strives to be closer to her every second. Bryan Morris is also convincing as Donald, a man torn between the immense love he has for his mother and his own issues with his divorce and the recent death of his father.
We never do find out whether Clara and Patrick actually had an affair in the past or not. Clara’s memory is failing her and Patrick has a tendency to embellish facts. However, by the end, it’s clear that this doesn’t even matter when the effect of their love is so strong. Ultimately, Half Life is a plea for human dignity and empathy throughout all generations. Ottawa Little Theatre and Jim McNabb do a wonderful job of relaying this message. Well worth seeing!
Half Life continues at Ottawa Little Theatre to March 8, 2014
Director: Jim McNabb
Set: Paul Gardner
Lighting: Barry Sims
Sound: Bradford MacKinlay
Costumes: Peggy Laverty
Stanley/Young Patrick…………….Thom Nyhuus
Rev. Hill/Second Scientist…………Barry Daley
First Scientist/Diana/Young Clara.. Sasha Gilchrist