The production I saw of The Swearing Jar got better as it went along. Its story follows the life of young woman named Carey through her first pregnancy and events surrounding the unexpected death of her husband Simon. Like a couple of other members of the audience I spoke with after the show, I left wondering if The Swearing Jar had been based on real events.
The most significant details about the pregnancy and death – Simon has died of a burst aneurysm his doctor was reluctant to treat because of his age – sounded real to me. I was also convinced by an explanation of why Simon had kept his condition a secret.
Unfortunately though – for me – the story is couched in a structural device that didn’t have any emotional pay-off. The scenes are presented to us out-of-order, so that it seems as though Carey (Janet Porter) is cheating on Simon (Andrew Pifko). When she pursues a mutual flirtation with a bookstore attendant (Christopher Stanton), I didn’t know that she was actually trying to move past Simon after his death. So I was rooting against the success of her closure and personal growth, and subsequently felt like a jerk.
After realizing I had been duped, I was ready to write-off The Swearing Jar as a screw-up: a good story ruined by a structural novelty. But then it got good.
There are two major confrontations in the second-half and an almost miraculous thing happens. Characters who were emotionally evasive – self-consciously clever and generically imagined awkward nerds – become genuinely engaged with decisions they have made. It struck me that as the swear jar onstage filled with five-dollar bills, the characters jettison (almost) all linguistic deflections of emotion, and come to terms with the truth.
I left the theatre with a good feeling about The Swearing Jar. I’m trying not to confuse this with my feelings for its emotional substance and structural duplicity. Though I bought the action as it relates to the story, I felt most of it – even in the stronger second-half – was emotion at a wholesale level. I didn’t get a deep sense of what was driving these characters and didn’t see much distinction between them.
Especially in the scenes with Carey and Owen (her bookstore beaux), I found myself distracted by how incredibly similar they were, and perplexed about the attraction. To me it seemed as though they got more self-conscious around one another. The most distinctive character of The Swearing Jar is Simon’s mother Bev (Kyra Harper). In the context of her son and daughter-in-law Bev seemed refreshingly sure of herself.
But Bev doesn’t factor into the action much until the very end. The Swearing Jar – like the glass cylinder onstage that saves a staggering three thousand dollars in total – has a sweet enough pay-off in the end. So while this was an uneven production, it was tolerably uneven, and for the story alone, was worth checking-out for me.
– The Swearing Jar is playing at the Tarragon Theatre (Main Space); 30 Brigman Avenue (North of Dupont, east of Bathurst)
– It plays on Friday July 4th at 10:30 PM; Sunday July 6th at 1:15 PM; Tuesday July 8th at 7:00 PM; Wednesday July 9th at 4:00 PM; Thursday July 10th at 2:15 PM; Saturday July 12th at 9:45 PM
– Tickets are $10 at the door and are also available from the Toronto Fringe Festival website.