The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of The Shoplifters. Photo by David Cooper.
The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of The Shoplifters. Photo by David Cooper.

After watching Morris Panych’s The Shoplifters, you may want to reach for the show’s program for some help in figuring out what it all means. Not that his comedy is particularly complicated, but unlike some of the antics on stage, its underlying messages are comparatively subtle.

In The Shoplifters, an apparently career shoplifter and her thirty-something accomplice are apprehended after attempting to steal a couple of expensive steaks hidden under their dresses. At times locked inside the storage room of an unnamed superstore, the duo is coerced into confessing their crime by two security guards; one a seasoned guard with secrets of his own, the second is the gung-ho newbie who wants to throw the book at them.

As the two thieves resist their interrogation, Panych reveals small snippets of humanity. The older Alma apparently steals to provide much-needed food to those in her low-income neighborhood, while her co-conspirator Phyllis is being forced out of both her comfort zone and small life. The older guard Otto reveals a heart inconsistent with his role as a driving force to store profits. Even the younger guard Dom uses a new-found religion to find some redemption.

Inside the world created by the playwright though, these character glimpses are fleeting, and rarely explored with any depth. With many of these revelations left dangling, they are at times as inert as the items hidden up the skirts of the two shoplifters.

Among these unfinished threads, we are also told Alma may have cancer, and Dom confesses to having thoughts of murder. The relationship between Alma and her younger protégé never comes into focus, even Otto’s motivation is never made clear. Is he in love with Alma or is she just a manifestation of his desire to look at the bigger picture?

What Panych does get right is in some of the crazier and funnier moments of his play (there is a sequence in which Agnes Tong as Phyllis reveals the rest of the items she has stolen that is absolutely priceless). However, these too are fleeting. The result is an unsatisfying whole.

Working to bring Panych’s characters to some life are a quartet of actors mostly up to its challenges. Particularly good here are stage veterans, Patti Allan (Alma), and Dean Paul-Gibson (Otto) who are grounded in a reality inside some of the ridiculousness of the story. Tong and Raugi Yu (Dom) don’t quite find that same balance but do much of the heavy lifting on the physical comedy side of The Shoplifters, with terrific results.

Panych’s longtime set designer Ken MacDonald builds a mountain of boxes inside the warehouse cum interrogation room (one hopes the Arts Club negotiated a product placement deal with the suppliers). Towering over the characters, it is a less-than-subtle reminder of our consumerism. Lighting designer Alan Brodie gets to have a little fun with MacDonald’s set during transitions.

In paraphrasing his program notes, playwright and director Morris Panych says his comedy is neither a revolution nor a political movement; it is about action, even when such actions have the potential for little real impact.

In simpler terms, he reinforces this idea by having his characters divide themselves (and by extension the audience) into two categories: those who chase, and those who run.

Without Panych’s words though, the more passive audience member may have a difficult time reconciling his authorial intent. While one of Panych’s characters readily admits “grey is everything that isn’t black or white”, in The Shoplifters the sentiment isn’t quite as profound as it is meant to be.

The Shoplifters written and directed by Morris Panych. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston St, Vancouver) until March 9. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.