Mighton's The Little Years bends time and space
There's a measured hand at work in the scripts of celebrated Canadian playwright John Mighton. A mathematician by trade, Mighton pens stories that probe the boundaries of the world in which we live. His plays wrestle with the construction of the rules that govern our universe, but also the philosophical questioning of our place among them.
The Little Years is a study of the trappings of time and space. Specifically, the brutality of time and its effect on everything from health and relationships, to technology, art, and the environment. Mighton's intellectual themes are brought richly to life by director Chris Abraham and a clearly focused cast who age before our very eyes. While there are moments where it plods through these time stretches, stuck too firmly in intellectual questioning, there's a lot to enjoy in this slow, cerebral dance through the decades.
Kate (Irene Poole) seeks to uncover the mysteries of time and space in a decade in which women aren't supposed to exercise their brains. Her mother (Chick Reid) places Kate firmly in the shadow of her older brother William, who marries Grace (Pamela Sinha), a liberal activist. As time passes, the characters shrink under the weight of regret and drift forwards and backwards.
Like a well-crafted lecture, the play is chock full of wonderful intellectual challenges tempered by moments when emotions, that are resistant to rationality, interfere. If there's a criticism of the play it's that the ideas almost always dominate feeling, leaving some of the scenes painfully slow and lacking action. There's a sense of hyper-realism in the dialogue — long pauses, short answers — that weighs down the pace.
At the core of Mighton's explorations is the fear of irrelevance brought on by the passing of time. It proves to be the strongest and most affecting theme of the play. Kate as a young teen grapples with this burgeoning feeling, like a pit in the bottom of her stomach. As a young adult it continues to nag and she combats it with anger. And finally, as an adult, the feeling has so overwhelmingly taken over that she's lost all desire for accomplishment. Mighton shows masterful craftsmanship in the triptych of Kate's journey.
Abraham and a talented team of designers push the text further. Thomas Ryder Payne underwrites the dialogue and transitions with a subtle but deeply effective score. Kimberly Purtell's complex lighting design transcends mood setting, as a host of shapes float through the space. And Julie Fox outfits fifty years of style in 90 minutes — not an easy feat.
Poole's slow transformation from anger into irrelevance is haunting to watch. There is a broken quality to the eldest Kate that feels rooted in the real; we've all met this fractured person before. Reid is riveting as the mother who helps drive her there, especially in her final years. Cohen and Sinha are also strong as their beliefs change throughout the years.
There's rarely a moment in Mighton's play that isn't endowed with an interesting question. It makes for a challenging but deeply unique working out of the confines of time.
The Little Years, written by John Mighton and directed by Chris Abraham, runs at the Tarragon Theatre until December 16.
Photo of The Little Years by Cylla von Tiedemann