A searing and emotional examination of the power of memory and writing, Michel Tremblay’s The Real World? is set in two separate realities, one the here and now, the other the imagined world written and conjured into existence by Claude (Matthew Edison), the youngest of two siblings.
Characters crisscross though time, acting out confrontations between Claude, his mother, Madeleine, sister Mariette, and father, Alex, in the present – which may or may not be ‘the real world’ – and a past Claude has embellished in his play, a work of fiction he has – perhaps mistakenly – given his mother to read. Weaving his way through numerous arches, set against the sky blue backdrop of Charlotte Dean’s so real-you-can-smell-dinner, middle class living room, Claude is an occupant of two worlds, the present and his own envisioned past, the world of his play that his mother insists he created in a vain desire to be ‘interesting’.
According to the Madeleine of the present, played by the excellent Jane Spidell, Claude’s play is all lies. Or, at least, and this is key, she would never have spoken the words he has given her in his play. Oh, she may have thought those thoughts, but she would never have said them, because to do so, would not only have ended her marriage, an essential sanctuary, but would have created scenes violent beyond his imagination.
Claude has given voice to his mother’s inner rage, and she is not in a mood to thank him. But it is the presence of that fictionalized rage, and the moral questions it raises, as we are pitched between scenes of accusation and denial, that fuels this powerful drama. As the family disputes and mocks Claude’s version of the past, that past rages relentlessly on, hauling secrets out of closets, and laying waste to years of pretension and determinedly constructed facades.
And what kind of a son is Claude? Was he motivated to write his play, inaccurate though it may be, because it holds out the possibility of escape from a menial day-job, or the ever present option of following in his salesman’s father’s footsteps, or did he write this version of the past to liberate his mother by giving her a voice to speak the truth. Is she the one he wants to set free?
It is this constant questioning that complicates and intensifies The Real World?
Has Claude exaggerated his father’s monstrous behavior? Is Cliff Saunders’ Alex, shocked by Tilly’s sudden wave of resentment, a convivial joking salesman who should be forgiven his occasional lapses of fidelity; a weak man certainly, but hardly malicious. Or is he rather Tony Nappo’s Alex, paired with Spidell’s Madeleine, a cruel philanderer, who taunts his wife with an endless succession of lies and betrayals, and treats her like a servant, all the while reveling in her complicity, and taking terrible advantage of that devoted silence. Is Alex fumbling and forgivable, or brutish and abusive? As portrayed by these exceptional actors working in tandem, he emerges as a complex collage of all of the above.
Madeline’s outrage, plainly fierce and dignified in Jane Spidell’s realm, is perfect counterpoint to Meg Tilly’s explosive outpourings of pain. How lovely that Tilly, a well known film actress, is cast in the role. [Director Richard Rose has availed himself of the opportunity on a number of occasions of allowing this play about worlds to reach beyond its outermost arches into our own.] Two competing visions of Madeleine – Spidell all tightly wound and wounded – Tilly lashing out with years of pent up despair – become one woman debating her self in yet another world.
As for Mariette, played in the present by Sophie Goulet, and in Claude’s play within a play by Cara Gee, we see not only a girl who has evolved from innocence and unknowing into a version of her father, but the invisible architecture that the wounded soul erects to protect itself from a painful past. But even here, while we may want to leap into the arms of Claude’s conclusions – yes, his father is indeed the monster he has portrayed – we are presented with another conundrum. Is it possible Claude got it all wrong, that being flawed, and inept is not the same as being deliberately brutal. Alex’s final act of the play, a cruelty to his son, could well be interpreted as an attempt to protect his wife from further distress and insult.
Matthew Edison is the anchor here, and while a certain coldness and neutrality may well be required to negotiate the path between standing inside and outside his own two worlds, there were times when Edison seemed too out of place. Surely it was a shock, partly the result of his own blindness, to realize that his mother is revolted by his written labour of love. A writer who pens words of such fury, must surely have some pent up angst of his own. For all his protestations, Edison’s Claude does not seem to be completely born of this household. But that is small complaint, Rose’s The Real World? is a stellar production.
Indeed, the only question of certainty that emerges from Tarragon’s The Real World? is why this play isn’t done more.
During the play’s final and audaciously realized last scenes, in which words cease to be metaphors, we truly wonder if Claude’s play should have been written. For the sake of his mother, her years holding her tongue, would it not have been better for him to have emulated her talent for tortured silence. What has the writer gained by these revelations? ‘Present family’ is not a place Claude will soon visit again. Still, a writer has given terrible birth to a voice that will never be silenced. Claude will probably escaped his day job but, for that liberation, what price has he paid?
The Real World? runs at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, until June 3, 2012. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827.
The Real World,
Michel Tremblay at the Tarragon, Toronto
The Real World?
By Michael Tremblay
Translated by John Van Burek & Bill Glassco
Directed by Richard Rose
Set & Costume Design Charlotte Dean
Lighting Design Kevin Fraser
Music & Sound Design Emily Porter
Stage Manager Marinda de Beer
Starring: Matthew Edison, Cara Gee, Sophie Goulet, Tony Nappo, Cliff Saunders, Jane Spidell, Meg Tilly.