Toto Too Theatre Does Itself Proud

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Categories: Community Theatre

LoveValourCompassion-2773 (photo-Allan Mackey)

Photo:Allan Mackey

There was one unfortunate aspect to TotoToo Theatre’s recent production of Love! Valour! Compassion!

It deserved a longer run. Although focusing on the lives of eight gay men over three holiday weekends at an Eastern seaboard farmhouse, Terrence McNally’s award-winning play touches on universal truths that can resonate with a broad cross-section of theatregoers. That certainly happened on Broadway where it left many audience members in tears. And it was also a virtue of Chantale Plante’s sensitive, discerning production at Academic Hall.

McNally, whose output also includes the book for the hit musical, Ragtime, and Frankie And Johnny In The Clair de Lune, is a seminal figure in late 20th Century American theatre — a gay playwright who has managed to avoid ghettoization despite dealing with subject matter, that in earlier generations, and in a different cultural climate, deterred dramatists like Tennessee Williams and William Inge from confronting matters of sexuality to the degree that McNally does.

The strength of Love! Valour! Compassion lies in the fact that, despite its subject matter and the obvious interest it holds for the gay community, its potential audience knows no boundaries. Its deserved commercial and artistic success has benefited theatre as a whole. It can’t easily be dismissed as niche entertainment — any more than Ottawa’s TotoToo Theatre company should be marginalized as some kind of niche operation of interest only to one particular segment of our theatre-going community. TotoToo’s recent successes — The Lights Of Shangri-La, the superbly entertaining Avenue Q and now McNally’s play — testify to its mainstream validity.

And, speaking of the mainstream, Love! Valour! Compassion firmly! belongs in that tradition despite its focus on the gay experience. Stage plays about weekends in the country, or variations thereof, have been happening for centuries. Restoration comedy, Noel Coward, Agatha Christie, even Shakespeare — take your pick. Throw a group of individuals together for a few days, and things start to happen.

With Love! Valour! Compassion you’re also reminded of Chekhov — of the sad, sweet ruefulness of a Chekhovian comedy, with its reminders of paths not taken and dreams unfulfilled. Yet, even though McNally’s play has that texture, it voices a sturdier affirmation of life. This is perhaps because its characters have been through more — especially the two, played beautifully by Josh Kemp and Lawrence Evenchick, who by the end have achieved a certain serenity together in the face of a lethal affliction.

The shadow of what one character describes as the “scourge” does hover over this 1995 play — but AIDS is not the script’s central preoccupation in the way it was with such earlier off-Broadway pieces as William Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. McNally has long been writing about personal relationships and here, the relationships happen to be gay. But they repeatedly strike a wider chord, which is why the play is so transcendent.

Over the course of three weekends we see — for example — a long and caring relationship reaffirmed. The middle-aged couple portrayed in this recent production by Dean Ross and Stavros Sakladis, both of them excellent, may squabble at times like many a married couple, they may be markedly different in their social and political views and and they may differ over what constitutes tasteful behaviour. But last week’s performances also underlined their deep affection for one another — as well as providing ingrained evidence of a for-better-or-for-worse durability in their partnership.

We also saw another kind of relationship — between Shaun Toohey, playing Gregory, the middle-aged host of these weekend gatherings, and Bobby, a blind youth who, portrayed with sweet-natured vulnerability by Patrick Tweed, has become the centrepiece of Gregory’s life. Toohey is an actor who finds nuance in his characterizations — and this was an insightful examination of a veteran stage choreographer whose hard-earned emotional equilibrium is threatened by both career anxieties due to age and the emergence on the scene of Ramon, a young ambitious dancer who flaunts his sexuality and sets his sights on Bobby. We’re dealing with jealousy and insecurity here, and again these are universal emotions. But this crisis resolves itself in an unexpected way: Toohey’s Gregory had one moment of unsettling ferocity in this production, but then, later, we had his character committing an act of unexpected generosity — and concurrently we were seeing actor Drake Evans take the character of Ramon beyond the level of bored, preening narcissism, and move it into something more complex.

Buzz, the character, played by Josh Kemp, is the most flamboyant, and has been given the best one-liners as he bustles about in full camp mode, reeling off the names of celebrities, past and present, whom he insists are gay. Kemp could have turned this court jester role, which was famously played on Broadway by Nathan Lane, into no more than a protracted flounce and still get the laughs. But Kemp also revealed the loneliness behind the comic mask — and there was an undeniable poignancy in those moments when his Buzz established an emotional kinship with fellow Aids victim James, a man whose essential kindness and serenity of spirit were memorably defined in Lawrence Evenchick’s touching performance.

Evenchick doubled his achievement in this production with his portrayal of another character facing a different kind of doom — James’s mean-minded, manipulative twin brother John. It was Evenchick who had the final moments on stage — still defiant in his hostility toward the world but also a solitary and abandoned figure.

Terrence McNally, raised a Roman Catholic, believes in the processes of redemption; indeed, one suspects he finds an almost spiritual grace in acts of forgiveness. These concerns weave their way through this play. This recent production struck an appropriate autumnal note at the end — a sense of quiet stoicism. But the love was still there, also the valour and compassion.

Love! Valour! Compassion

By Terrence McNally

ToTo Too Theatre

Oct 7-10, Academic Hall

Director: Chantale Plante

Musical director: Paul Legault

Choreographer: Jasmine Lee

Set and lighting: David Magladry

Sound: Robert Krukowski

Costumes: Glynis Ellens

Cast”

Ramon…………………………………………………Drake Evans

John/James…………………………………………….Lawrence Evenchick

Buzz……………………………………………………Josh Kemp

Arthur………………………………………………….Dean Ross

Perry……………………………………………………Stavros Sakiadis

Bobby………………………………………………….Patrick Teed

Gregory……………………………………………….Sean Toohey


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