In his program notes, Vancouver playwright Dave Deveau says “death is a hard thing to talk about”. By the time his newest play Dead People Things wraps to its multiple endings, it is an obvious truism. For while there are some interesting things going on in this darkly funny story about death, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.
Summoned to her estranged aunt’s home by next-door-neighbour Beatrice, who just so happens to have been named executrix of the estate, millennial Phyllis discovers her aunt has died and left her the house.
Turns out though, dear old aunt was a major candidate for A&E’s Hoarders, and according to the will Phyllis must first deal with the countless boxes of stuff piled high to the ceiling, and deliver her aunt’s eulogy before she can cash in.
In Deveau’s script a few inevitable revelations are made, but they never really get explored to any depth. Why is Beatrice so angry? What was the reason for Phyllis’ estrangement from her aunt? Is there meaning behind some of the contents of the endless boxes? Why does Phyllis move so often and why does she have a bottle of tequila at the ready? More importantly though, why does Phyllis bother to stick around in the first place?
Instead of delving into some of these interesting questions, Deveau spends too much time on the inevitable bonding between neighbour and niece. Sure, not everything always needs to be neatly wrapped by the end, but in Dead People’s Things Deveau makes three such attempts. Only the first has any real impact.
Working hard to bring these characters to life are Eileen Barrett and Meaghan Chenosky, and both largely deal well with what they have been handed. As Beatrice, Barrett’s anger is always at the forefront even when we’re not quite sure of its origin. As Phyllis, Chenosky does eventually get to show some vulnerability but again there isn’t quite enough clarity to make it fully resonate.
It all takes place on Jennifer Stewart’s effective box-laden set which, in an obvious but incongruous metaphor, are largely cleared by the end of the play’s 90-minute run time. There is a surprisingly beautiful moment at the funeral, thanks to both Stewart and lighting designer Sophie Tang, which transforms the drab boxes.
A clearly personal story (and not just because we’re told so in the program notes), it is not hard to view Dead People’s Things as Deveau’s own attempt at a eulogy of sorts. And while honouring an aunt who has provided him and his family with so much may be a laudable goal, as an audience we need better access to both the life and death of this story.
Dead People’s Things by Dave Deveau. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Zee Zee Theatre production. On stage at Studio 16 (1555 West 7th Ave, Vancouver) until May 5. Visit zeezeetheatre.ca for tickets and information.