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Michel Tremblay spends the first few moments of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, the belligerently sentimental valentine he’s written to the memory of his mother, telling the audience what the evening will not be.
It will not, says his onstage stand-in (Jean-Guy Bouchard), be about kingdoms in Denmark where something is rotten, or sisters who yearn for the high life in Moscow, or mothers who kill kids to get revenge on fathers. As the list goes onand it does go on, and onyou’ll feel your mood either lightening or, if you’re like me and actually expect stimulation from the theater, deflating, depending on how much stimulation you expect from theater. Bouchard moves around the stage as he speaks, skirtingin a manner more Borscht Belt than absurdistthe table and chairs that are its only ornamentation. No one, he assures us, is going to turn into a rhinoceros.
Eventually, he gets to a line about the evening not concerning Southern belles who ride streetcars namedand here he pauses, raising his eyebrows in a gesture known to sing-along leaders the world over. The audience supplies the refrain”Desire”and when it does, his laundry list of great plays is pretty much complete. Bouchard then sums up with “No…There will be none of the usual theatrics.”
Consider yourself warned.
Actually, as the actor says that line, the lights dim, leaving him in a spotlight and thereby establishing that there will be at least some of the usual theatrics. For now it’s time for the appearance of the little lady around whom this memory play has been built.
A light comes up behind a scrim, revealing Nana (Nicola Cavendish), a fireplug in a flower-print dress posing sweetly. For a moment, she’s iconic, wrapped in the hazy golden glow of memory. Then she bustles into the wings and emerges out front in full dither, railing affectionately at Bouchard, who has morphed, while all eyes were on her, into a pouting adolescent.
“Ten years old and a delinquent already,” she fumes, marveling that any son of hers could think he might throw chunks of ice into the street without getting thrown into jail for the rest of his life. Nana is, let’s note, so prone to exaggeration that her every flight of fancy gets embellished with other flights of fancy. The ice-chunk episode soon has her picturing herself as the neighborhood pariah, forced to wear a gas mask to church while her son rots in his cell.
Whatever else one can say about this style of parenting, Tremblay obviously found it beneficial as a playwright-in-training. In the evening’s remaining four scenes, he shows how, over the next 10 years, he appropriated Nana’s talent for embellishment and bent it to his own devices. By the age of 13, he had begun to argue with her about storytelling gaps in the terrible pulp novels she adored “Where did she poop?” he wonders of a princess who was locked in a dungeon for six months. Three years later, the lad had picked up his mother’s gift for hyperbole. Remembering how, as low man on the familial totem pole, he was always served beef cut from the very centers of her roasts, he moans that “the cow was practically still breathing.”
Like most mothers, Nana knows when she’s being baited, but it’s clear that she also admires her son’s spunk. “You’ve been asking questions since the day you were born,” she tells him. “A body doesn’t know what to make up any more.”
But make up she doesstories about snobbish Aunt Gertrude and her daughter with the twitch, about policemen so polite they take off their shoes before stepping on her carpet. Each yarn is punctuated at regular intervals by motherly interjections (“Don’t you roll your eyes to heaven like that”) that will be recognizable to any child of woman born. It’s safe to say that certain imagesdiminutive mom twisting the ear of hulking son perhaps chief among themare so common they seem universal.
Gordon McCall’s staging makes hay with the primal moments Tremblay hands him, and he keeps the pace sufficiently brisk that when Nana is slowed by illness in the final scenes, it doesn’t drag the evening to a full stop. The playing by Arena’s cast (imported from Canada, where the show originated as a joint production of the Canadian Stage Company and Centaur Theatre Company) is broad and cartoonish, but reasonably ingratiating. Cavendish makes Nana a winning dervish at first and persuasively vulnerable later. Bouchard has less to doand does it matter-of-factly.
Director and author have worked out a gratifying, if obvious, stage finale that gives Nana the proper send-off that real life didn’t have in store for Tremblay’s mother, who didn’t live long enough to see her son become one of Canada’s best-known playwrights. The evening’s final mater ex machina image is sentimentally grand, and it’s grandly managed at the Kreeger with an assist from designers John C. Dinning and Louise Guinand.
The image does make you think back to all those protestations Tremblay placed at the evening’s start about time-honored dramatic conflicts he had no intention of serving up. Turns out the author has more than a passing acquaintance with the great works of dramatic literature. His program bio credits him with having translated and adapted into French some 14 plays by the likes of Aristophanes, Chekhov, and Dario Fo, and a cynic just might say that he’s internalized their methodologyessentially killing off a father and sibling in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (they’re mentioned only in passing) so that he can have his doting mom all to himself before deifying her. I am not a cynic, of course, so I merely bring this up as a point of interest.
Mum’s the word. CP