Review: Pith (The Theatre Department)

Pith - The Theatre Department

Enjoy a trip to Ecuador in the 30’s in Pith playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille

Last night I saw a preview performance of The Theatre Department’s production of Pith by Stewart Lemoine. It opens tonight at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace.

Normally theatre companies prefer that we don’t review preview shows but it was the only night I could go. Thanks to director Ron Jenkins and the cast for being understanding and letting me join them on a trip to the Ecuadorian jungle. I had a lovely time.

The show opens with Jack Vail (Ron Pederson), an itinerant sailor, telling us why he’s decided to stay for a while in Providence, Rhode Island. I knew right away that the story was set in the twenties or thirties because of the language. It wasn’t until this morning when I read the program carefully that I realized it was set in 1931.

The language is beautiful. It has that old-fashioned mix of formality and idiom that can seem surprising now. Did people really talk like that? Yes – according to my grandmother.

Jack meets Nancy Trimble (Amy Matysio) in the Presbyterian churchyard. He had seen her arrive for the morning service late and leave early with a regal looking woman dressed in black. Now she’s sitting on a bench, crying and eating pie.

They talk, banter flirtatiously in a 1930s way, and Nancy tells Jack why she’s sad. She works as a companion to Mrs. Virginia Tilford (Daniela Vlaskalic), the woman in black. Mr. Tilford disappeared 10 years earlier on a trip to Ecuador to find a silver mine. Everyone except Mrs. Tilford thinks that he died. She keeps hoping that he’ll come back and has put her life on hold, seeing no one socially, listening to Rosa Ponselle records on the Victrola.

Jack tells Nancy that he’ll go to Mrs. Tilford’s house the next day and ‘cure’ her. And so starts a fantastical journey.

Jack guides Mrs. Tilford and Nancy on a quest to the Ecuadorian jungle, retracing her husband’s trip. They go by train, by ship, and by river boat and finally arrive at Silver Lake.

Along the way they meet a shady southern business man, an oily gigolo, an enthusiastic Swedish geologist, and an Ecuadorian boatman, all played by Pederson in an incredibly physical performance which must leave him absolutely exhausted at the end of the evening. His accents are fabulous if not authentic.

Mrs. Tilford morphs from a very formal almost widow into a softer Virginia, displaying a sense of humour and a surprising ability to dance.

Nancy is the peppy sidekick; the ex-campfire girl with surprising survival skills. I don’t know what it looked like when people danced to the Muskrat Ramble in 1931 but Nancy’s dance is brilliant. Kudos to Choreographer Monica Dotter.

The whole trip takes place in Mrs. Trimble’s living room that’s furnished with four wooden chairs, a Victrola, and a side table. It’s amazing where we can go without ever leaving home.

When we were leaving I overheard someone say that it was a really feel-good show. It is. But it’s more than that. It’s a tribute to the power of our minds and our imaginations. It’s very funny but it’s also quite touching. Watching Jack make it up as he goes along and trying to stay a half-step ahead of Mrs. Tilford’s moods is wonderful. It really does seem as if he’s improvising the trip and that the other two are improvising along with him.

Nancy hangs on to her cheerful peppiness to comfort and support Mrs. Tilford and Mrs. Tilford becomes Virginia, a woman who finally accepts that her husband is dead. I was impressed with the way that the characters hang on to that 1931 formality no matter how frantic the action gets. Terrific performances from all three.

Go see Pith and enjoy a trip to Ecuador.

Details:

  • Pith is playing at Theatre Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.) until February 2nd.
  • Performances are at 7.30 pm Tuesday through Saturday with matinees on at 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday
  • Tickets are $20.00 and PWYC Tuesday evenings
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-504- 7529 and at the box office

Photo of Amy Matysio, Ron Pederson, and Daniela Vlaskalic by Farrah Aviva