Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

The best reason for seeing Kanata Theatre’s production of the 201l play, Last Romance, is the performance of Brooke Keneford as a  lonely widower who strikes up a friendship with a stranger in a dog park.

Keneford communicates a rough-hewn charm as Ralph Bellini, an opera-loving Italian American who’s desperate for companionship — and maybe, just maybe, a late-flowering romance. He’s gregarious yet vulnerable. His social skills are rusty — and, in an era obsessed with  political correctness, his initial overtures to the aloof dog-walking Carol could be seen as sexual harassment.

But Keneford gives Ralph an outgoing likeability that is irresistible while also making us aware of the aching personal loss he continues to experience as a result of his wife’s  death.
It comes as no surprise that a friendship takes root, followed by a sense of closer companionship that ultimately leads to a romance of sorts. But before the end, Joe DiPietro’s script takes an unexpected turn — and not a particularly satisfactory one as hidden truths are revealed. The climax yearns to be bittersweet — but it really makes you realize how psychologically unconvincing the play really is.

Heather Walt’s uncertain production doesn’t really paper over the faults. The evening begins with an interminable back projection of a video showing dogs and their owners  at the National Capital Commission’s Bruce Pit site. It’s a bad idea and contributes nothing useful; once the play begins, Al Quirt’s excellent sound design quickly makes us aware that we’re in a dog park

Then there’s the clumsy use of operatic arias to haunt Ralph’s memories of once aspiring to sing at the Met. Perhaps the script does require someone to emerge, wraith-like, from the shadows, to attempt a bit of singing, but for a number of reasons these moments simply do not work.  A further problem is lack of fluidity. Designer Gordon Wait’s  thoughtful and functional contributions should meet the challenge of a play with three different settings — but prolonged scene changes indicate a failure to take advantage of them.

The play seeks to offer an examination of loneliness among the elderly. That it becomes mired in implausibility near the end makes it tricky to bring off in performance. Keneford, who’s always been good at exploring the nuances of character, ensures Ralph the credibility he needs. Sandy Wynne, as the dog-walking object of his admiration, is touching in her shyness and self-containment, and very affecting in a crucial moment of revelation near the end — but by this time the script is starting to lose plausibility.
A different kind of loneliness is on display in the performance of Susan Monaghan as Ralph’s sister Rose — an embittered woman who is still seething over the husband who left her years before and now finds some kind of solace in caring for her widowed brother instead.  Monaghan gives us a Rose of ferocious possessiveness. She tries to give her character some sympathetic traits but it’s a losing battle. And by the end we know that she’s capable in her own way of destroying the happiness of others. There’s something sour about a play that has someone like Rose ultimately calling the shots.

Last Romance by Joe DiPietro’s
A Kanata Theatre production
Ron Maslin Playhouse  to Oct. 1

Director; Heather Walt
Sets: Gordon Walt
Costumes: Marilyn Valiquette
Sound: Tom Kobolak

Ralph Bellini: Brooke Keneford
Carol Reynolds: Sandy Wynne
Rose Tagliatelle: Susan Monaghan
Peaches: Navi