Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Comfort Cottages has heart but no bite

Never mind the golden girls, meet the golden madams of Western Gold Theatre’s Comfort Cottages.

Aunt Kitty (yes, a bit on the nose) has been running a roadside motel for some forty years. The no vacancy sign has been on for the duration; not because the motel is particularly busy, but because its clientele are not your typical travelers seeking shelter. Seems Kitty was not so much an hotelier, but in the words of her lawyer, “an astute independent business woman”. In other words, for decades Kitty has been running a brothel.

At Kitty’s passing, it is her niece Katherinenamed as heir, with the possibility of a big payout as developers are looking to buy up the land on which the motel sits. Before Katherine can cash-in though, the will dictates she must spend the next year at the motel, informing her aunt’s clients that she has died. Enlisting the help of our three BFFs, the foursome move into the motel, and begin the task of notifying it’s patrons.

From writers Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk, Comfort Cottages plays out much like a television sitcom, only much longer than the usual 22 minutes.  Comparisons to Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are inevitable. But while the archetypes are similar, Comfort Cottages steers clear of any of the controversial themes that made its television counterpart so ground-breaking.

Instead, while Comfort Cottages feels familiar, it lacks any real bite. With a running time of almost 150 minutes on opening night (including intermission), it begins to feel about as long in the tooth as some of the motel’s residents. And as the inevitable conflicts arise, like any good sitcom, things have a way of turning out for the best. The very late revelation that Katherine has a way out of her duties as dictated in the will is downright maddening.

Despite its length, we are surprisingly shortchanged in hearing more of the stories of the men who come calling, as they are the ones who provide most of the surprises in the script. Perhaps it is shouldn’t be that surprising though, as with the real golden girls, much of the variety came from that show’s other characters that came and went.

Terence Kelly and Suzanne Ristic in Comfort Cottages. Photo by Javier Sotres.
Terence Kelly and Suzanne Ristic in Comfort Cottages. Photo by Javier Sotres.

As the gentlemen callers, Dave Campbell, Keith Martin Gordey, and Terence Kelly are absolutely terrific here. Without wanting to give away too much, suffice to say there is a death, and the beautiful little funeral is made that much more poignant because we really care. Terence Kelly’s turn as the cross-dressing trucker is both funny and touching. As the lawyer, Steve James is solid and Vince Metcalfe goes way over-the-top as the next door neighbour.

Among the women, Merrilyn Gann, Marlee Walchuk, Suzanne Ristic, and Annabel Kershaw play their archetypes with various degrees of flair.  Walchuk is particularly good here with a natural delivery and genuine emotion. There were some issues opening night with timing, which meant some of the jokes landed flat.

Glenn MacDonald provides a tidy little set that includes both indoors and out. Its transformation in act two to full bloom was glorious, although it would have been great to have seen more of that transformation in the boxes centre stage, rather than on the fringes. Chris Allan and Javier Sotres provide some wonderful sound effects and take advantage of Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s Over The Rainbow.

Comfort Cottages is the first original play produced by Western Gold Theatre, whose mandate is to give opportunities for professional senior actors. While it may not break any new ground, it does have a heart. That it provides opportunities for older theatre professionals, who at times may struggle finding work in our youth-focused world, is a welcome bonus.

Comfort Cottages by Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk. Directed by Anna Hagen.  A Western Gold Theatre Society production on stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) until October 23.  Visit https://westerngoldtheatre.org for tickets and information.

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