Unconventional family tale graces Toronto stages… along with Elvis references
Joan MacLeod’s Toronto, Mississippi, presented by Panfish Productions at The Box Theatre, is a show about an unconventional family that revolves around Jhana (Kayla Whelan), an 18-year-old woman whose developmental delay has stuck her in the uneasy space between independent adult desire and a dependent perpetual childhood. It’s a complex and intriguing show that—like its lead character—is both lovable and frustrating, and could use a little more experience.
Jhana’s father, appropriately called King (Peter Nelson), is an Elvis impersonator who left her and her mother to live a nomadic, alcoholic and womanizing life. Jhana, Elvis-obsessed, is now trying to learn some responsibility at a directed workshop job, and has her sights set on a potential relationship (though whether she understands what that entails is anyone’s guess).
Meanwhile, hilariously failed poet and TA Bill (Yehuda Fisher) has moved in as a boarder, with his genuine sensitivity in handling Jhana warring with his desire to date her mother. He’s a version of the Nice Guy—claiming to be the “voice of women” in his poetry—the “best friend” who worms his way into a woman’s life, then believes that basic decency and kindness entitle him to romantic interest.
Jhana’s mother Maddie (Andrea Irwin) is overprotective and terrified of either the prospect of her daughter leaving home or never being able to leave home. She still exhibits an almost magnetic attraction to her ex-husband, who returns in dramatic fashion, but whether the return is very temporary or permanent is in question.
MacLeod’s no stranger to writing about the complicated lives of teens. Her monologue play, Shape of a Girl, dealt with the often horrific impact of active and passive bullying that can occur in high school. She’s not afraid to air uncomfortable realities, and here there are some wonderfully, deliberately awkward moments that may make you squirm, particularly those involving Jhana’s burgeoning sexuality and issues of consent, the ease of taking advantage, and whether Jhana’s at all qualified to deal with any of it.
It’s a fascinating question: where do we draw the line between protecting and infantilizing? Who gets to decide what’s suitable and what’s not? All the adult characters make character-specific mistakes. Bill goes too far in his desire to be liked and accepted; Maddie—having to hold on tight by herself for so long—lashes out at the threat of having to let go; King, having been largely absent, makes uninformed, snap judgments about Jhana’s situation.
That said, there is some non-deliberate awkwardness as well. The rhythm of the evening felt off; actors stumbling over lines and odd pacing of and between scenes occasionally stilted delivery and character interaction. Some of this could be related to issues in the play’s construction, the cold Monday night, or just the space of the Box Theatre that doesn’t lend itself to easy entrances and exits.
For example, the dinner with King, a typical descent into drunkenness, turns into a pissing contest with Bill so quickly that it’s difficult to later believe Maddie is surprised by Bill’s interest in her, or that they haven’t had the “gentle rejection” conversation before. As well, the Elvis references as unifying factor and the repartee between the “adults” didn’t always work for me, grating slightly like forced laughter.
What did work was everyone’s multifaceted interactions with Jhana. Whelan’s portrayal is a wonder of energy to behold; clearly having a very difficult time with short-term memory, she repeats, blanks, fragments, and catastrophizes, testing her relationships with her family. (To add realism, the production consulted with a social service worker.)
At the centre of the play is the nuanced relationship between mother and daughter. When Jhana hugs her mother and says “mine,” you understand the heart that keeps things going underneath the hardship; at all other times you can feel the weight and exhaustion of constant, maximum-volume interaction.
It’s that combination of exhaustion and reward, I think, which defines this production; I wouldn’t necessarily call it fun or polished, but I appreciated its goal of giving a voice to an overlooked group.
Photo of Kayla Whelan and Peter Nelson by Dahlia Katz