Theatre Review: Escape From Happiness

The Factory Theatre is on a roll lately.

Last week, I caught the brilliant Chekhov Longs...In the Ravine, a bona fide testament to the affectivity and ingenuity of which theatre is capable. (Mark my words, actress Colombe Demers is one to watch for.)

Escape From Happiness, which opened last night, is another gem from this Adelaide-Bathurst outfit. The production, penned by Toronto's darling George F. Walker, premiered at Factory in the early 90s to much critical hootin' and hollerin'. Now, some 14 years later, the theatre is resurrecting this comedic drama.

The play centres around the capers of a Toronto-area family, one that is being ravaged by suspicious criminal activity. Nora is a hard-nosed, brooding matriarch with a definite scoff in her step. Her husband, a recovering alcoholic, once tried to set fire to the house while his family lay in bed. Their three daughters, Elizabeth, Mary Ann and Gail, all bear the scars of slapdash upbringings.

Needless to say, this ain't your typical white picket fence type of family.

The already frail clan, upon finding itself caught in the middle of a criminal plot, must work double duty to overcome vexation and elude its own downfall. Yet is it the outsiders - zany conmen and corrupt cops run amuck in the show - that threaten the family's bond, or does danger come from within? The criminal siege on their lives only serves as a Pandora's box, forcing Nora's family to confront the pain that has long been gnawing away at it.

While the temptation to reduce characters to caricatures is often strong in eccentrics-infested comedies such as Escape, none of the actors succumb to it. The entire 10-person cast delivers, though the men take a slight backseat as the women romp, rumble and roar. Catherine Fitch and Irene Poole, however, truly shine. Fitch induces much finger-pointing, knee-slap worthy guffaws as Nora's frumpy basket case of a daughter, Mary Ann. With bang-on comedic timing, she steals the show. Come the second act, however, it is Poole's Elizabeth that wows. Poole has confidently crafted her character, and the result is unabashed, fiery passion that simultaneously commands respect and elicits sympathy.

Galloping along, the pace, while overwhelming at the outset, comes to feel natural. The first act is, at times, exhausting to watch, but sets up the laughs for the latter half perfectly. The cast sometimes falls victim to the play's tempo, rushing scenes that would benefit from a slower treatment; as a result, the overall effect suffers.

Escape From Happiness cloaks its examination of modern day family life in a rapid-fire parade of shticks; and it is not until long after the laughs have died down that the complexities of its subject begin to sink in.

What: Escape From Happiness
When: Until April 23, 2006 (8pm, Tues to Sat; 2pm, Sun matinee; 1pm, Wed student matinee)
Where: Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street
Cost: $25 to $35, Sun PWYC, Student/Senior/Group discounts available
Info: 416.504.9971
Rating: ***

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