At first glance, Since You Left Us has all the hallmarks of a farce, complete with its over-the-top characters and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in. But first time playwright Susinn McFarlen shows her ample skills by giving so much more than a simple silly romp in East Vancouver.
So complex is McFarlen’s ridiculously funny script that she manages to seamlessly transition from the farce of act one, where plot takes second fiddle to pretty much everything else, to the ultimately sobering black comedy we find in act two. And by the time we get to that second act, McFarlen so successfully blends these two comedic forms that we’re given a hybrid that is as much fun to watch as Colleen Wheeler’s performance.
What is perhaps most surprising though is McFarlen’s core dysfunctional family story manages to ring true despite being trapped inside the sometimes outrageous world she creates.
Tracking down her 17-year old son Danno to her sister’s home across the country from their home in Toronto, Fanny just happens to arrive on the night of her mother’s 70-year old birthday celebration. This is no ordinary septuagenarian’s birthday party though as this one is supposed to be taking place at the local Hooters bar. Before the clan can get back to the party though, they must all get reacquainted at sister Denny’s home on the eastside. Problem is Denny’s beloved Jack Russell has been diagnosed with Dogzheimer’s and is reduced to diapers. And that is just the first act. In act two, McFarlen ups the ante with a black comedy that includes a wild funeral and a sobering realization that, here quite literally, no matter how hard you try you can’t escape the influence that family has on your life.
To make any of this work requires a cast that can effectively straddle the ridiculousness and reality of McFarlen’s script. Colleen Wheeler is near perfect as the canine obsessed Denny, able to make us believe her love for a dog she carries around in a baby carrier and spoon feeds; a lesser actor would have simply collapsed under the weight of a character that is simultaneously exaggerated and believable. Jillian Fargey has a foot solidly inside each of the playwright’s two worlds, giving Fanny a surprising emotional depth while chaos swirls around her and Mike Gill, still in his final term at Studio 58, matches Fargey step-for-step.
Erla Faye Forsyth is a force to be reckoned with as mother Dolly, who talks excitedly of blow jobs to her grandson while reminding her grown children how much she resented them as they grew up. Mike Wasko and Derek Metz round out the cast with equally solid performances.
Not only assembling a cast that is able to handle McFarlen’s often ludicrous script, director Amiel Gladstone makes the most of Pam Johnson’s set, a beautiful framework that allows us to see through the walls into Denny’s home, and no doubt a metaphor for the internal glimpse of the family that gathers inside.
At times Since You Left Us is like that bad accident on the side of the highway that you just can’t keep your eyes off: grotesque and fascinating at the same time. Just like family.
Since You Left Us by Susinn McFarlen. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. A Presentation House Theatre presentation. On stage at Presentation House Theatre (333 Chesterfield Ave, North Vancouver) through September 28. Visit http://phtheatre.org for tickets and information.