Was Spring Toronto

Was Spring channels Blake in schizophrenic style

Daniel MacIvor's newest play Was Spring features echos of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In Blake's romantic poems, Songs of Innocence profiles youthful naivety, while Songs of Experience are more cynical expressions of life's struggles.

The playwright's characters embody the qualities of Blake's poem: innocence is the young Kit, experience is the gnarled Kath, and denial of both is the elderly Kitty. The three characters, all different life phases of the same woman, seemingly compete for the retelling of her story.

The narrative is effective at finding the tension between how and what we remember and Claire Coulter offers an extremely memorable performance as the woman who has to deal with it all on death's door. The structure, however, feels conventional and the story gets a little muddled as it unfolds.

At an old-age home, Kitty (Coulter) explains to the audience the reason why she's been moved from her house — she simply asked her neighbour for a cigarette. Her middle-aged self, Kath (Caroline Gillis), appears to remind Kitty of all the reasons she has to be depressed, most of which stem from how bad a mother she was. The youngest, Kit (Jessica Moss), arrives all romance and music to bring some sunshine to Kath's gloom. Kath and Kit wrestle for narrative control.

The play reminds me of the second act of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, in which three women represent the different phases of a life. Albee also introduces a strained relationship with offspring, but here the child of MacIvor's protagonist never enters the space as it does in Albee's play. There's something inherently more theatrical about MacIvor's treatment (this should hardly come as a surprise) — the characters, at times, speak directly to the audience, the mechanics of storytelling are very much a part of the play's thrust, and Kitty has performative power in the playing space.

It feels far more like a solo show than one in which there are three competing voices, and I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Kitty controls which of her younger counterparts speaks and ultimately chooses which story will carry her to the next phase. This power seems to stunt both Kath and Kit's dramatic potential. In the end, they both serve the whims of the dying protagonist.

Kitty's relationship with her daughter is the most polarizing and defining of the memories. When we reach the dark passages that shed light on Kath's scorn, delivered with beautiful bitterness by Gillis, the rest of the story seems to spill out. The opening of the floodgates elevates the stakes, but I wish the reveal would have come earlier. Witnessing these characters approach and negotiate the black hole is the heart of the play. The lead up, while it serves as a study of how we remember, just prepares us for it.

Still, the working out of the value of a life — and that's what hangs in the balance here — is undeniably captivating. From the beginning, Coulter commands the stage. She very quickly establishes Kitty as a seemingly self-assured woman who doesn't want your pity. Complex characters are all about contradiction, and Coulter's assuredness dissolves away as she revisits her past.

Gillis embodies experience like its a mangy woollen coat, wrapping herself in scorn. And Moss is the picture of exuberant innocence, but her memories are of a simpler fare — they sound somewhat flimsy.

MacIvor, it seems, writes experience more naturally. Kitty's search for a more innocent time, when she could hold on to something truly meaningful, is the struggle for the protagonist, but also for the playwright in Was Spring.

Was Spring, written and directed by Daniel MacIvor, runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until May 6.

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