Guest reviewer, Jim Murchisson
Photo: Phoenix Players. IEllen Clare O’Gallagher in Welfarewell.
It was a cool, dank Friday evening as I headed into the warmth of the Gladstone Theatre to see the Phoenix Players production of Welfarewell. As I entered into the theatre I was greeted by a cozy, economical little set made up of three primary playing areas: stage left a table and chairs serve as various meeting areas (rehearsal hall, police station, holding room, etcetera) centre stage is used primarily as a jail cell but doubles as a courthouse with minor adjustments and the stage right space works well as a tiny basement apartment or bank teller’s area.
The premise of the play is pretty interesting as it goes. An aging actress can no longer make ends meet and strategizes to commit a crime, anticipating that she might enjoy a better quality of life in prison in her waning years. Playwright, Cat Delaney inserts Shakespeare, liberally ensuring that there are some great lines in this play, but she does not meet the challenge of matching the power of Shakespearean dialogue with her own.
The problem is that Cat Delaney’s characters are sadly stereotypical. You have the feeling that this was written by someone observing poor souls from a suburban window and dropping a loonie in their hat while looking the other way. The result is a play of middle class indulgence rather than social relevance.
Esmeralda Quipp is a quite likeable, tea sipping, octogenarian thespian as played by Ellen Clare O’Gallagher but her primary advocates all seem totally daft. An attorney that has no idea that his client might have a different agenda and might be playing him, a social worker that thinks it is a miracle that someone in her line of work could have an idea and a seasoned judge who inexplicably doubts her instincts when all the evidence points in the other direction. These all examples of the playwright’s naivety towards the truly inspiring, yet taxing work of genuine social advocacy.
The other major problem with this production is it’s dearth of pace. I don’t know what the rehearsal schedule is like for Phoenix, but director Jo-Ann McCabe would be wise to do some quick runs of lines just to add some tempo. Significant time could be cut from the run time without any sense of the actors rushing. This could add nuance and texture to a play that needs the help.
I am a fan of community theatre and we are very fortunate in this city to have such a rich history of some of the oldest and most historic on the continent. I do hope that Phoenix has every success. This production however, was not “my cup of tea”.