Review: A Lonely Impulse of Delight & Sailor’s Song (Sterling Studio Theatre)

A Lonely Impulse of Daylight and Sailor’s Song close out Sterling Studio Theatre’s May One Acts in Toronto

My evening at Sterling Studio Theatre to see their double-bill of A Lonely Impulse of Delight and Sailor’s Song was bittersweet. I was excited to see them tackle John Patrick Shanley again. (I was very fond of their production of Where’s My Money?) But this is the final week of their May One Acts, after which the company will be leaving this warm, intimate space.

Perfectly suited to my mood, there is something heartbreaking and whimsical about both of these pieces. Each deals with characters torn between two worlds: the lyric beauty of romance and the harsh realities of loss and regret.

In A Lonely Impulse of Delight, Walter (Oliver Pigott) brings his best friend Jim (Kyle Labine) to the lake in Central Park to see the mermaid he’s fallen in love with. Jim is, quite sensibly, shaken when he realizes it isn’t some kind of prank.

It’s quite amusing to watch Jim try to cope with the absurdity of the situation, but this is not a happy story. Tension mounts as Jim realizes that Walter—his best friend—might be insane.

It’s short, light, and meant as a bittersweet trifle—a thematic prelude to the second play of the evening. It runs only about twenty minutes, but there is something haunting in this brief two-hander. Pigott and Labine are sincere and vulnerable. And director Sophie Ann Rooney has crafted a hypnotically cool, moody atmosphere.

Sailor’s Song is next. It’s longer (about eighty minutes) and considerably denser, having more time to explore its characters.

Rich is a young seaman trying to cope with the imminent death of his Aunt Carla and somehow connect to his estranged Uncle John. At a local bar, Rich befriends two sisters, Lucy and Joan. They’re odd ducks, for sure—both charming and seductive, but that’s where their similarities end. Lucy’s the sensible one, she works at a bank and knows how to carry a conversation. Joan is the crazy one, she’s a self-proclaimed medium (“automatic writer”) who let’s spirits inhabit her body… just because.

The experience of the play mirrors being on the water in a seafaring adventure. There are moments full of sunlight and joy as Rich discovers the whimsical personalities of Joan and Lucy. Then, the water goes dark with death and decay as Rich sits with his uncle, listening to his aunt’s final rasping breaths. One world is full of possibilities, the other: regret. And the two worlds come together in a heartbreaking finale.

The scenes where Rich and his Uncle John sit listening to the dying Carla are eerie as all hell. She is hidden away behind a gauzy sheet, but her wheezy, wretched breathing is always there. As if this isn’t spooky enough, I happened to be seated at a perfect angle to make out her murky face lurking in the shadows.

There is something endearing in all of the characters, even when you have to search for it. Andrew Cameron’s Rich has his wide-eyed, boyish demeanor. Stefne Mercedes’ Joan has an offbeat charm; she’s clearly loony-tunes, but there’s an intriguing stoicism there. As Lucy, Jessica Kennedy is both goofy and wise. Even Malcolm Taylor’s Uncle John eventually shows some vulnerability hidden beneath all his lecherous bravado.

There’s a subtle stroke of genius in the way director Angela Besharah has used the tech booth (which happens to be on stage): she’s turned it into a bar. The stage manager, running the show, becomes the bartender. There’s no dialogue between her and the rest of the cast, but there are gentle gestures that suggest the familiarity bar staff have with their regular patrons. It’s a resourceful and inspired bit of stagecraft—one of Sterling’s trademarks.

Both of these plays are lyrical and tender. There are some laughs to be had along the way, but be prepared for an evening of melancholy.

This final week of shows is your last chance to see Sterling in the space they’ve made their home. For those who’ve never been, you really should experience this cosy little theatre. And if you come down Sterling from Dundas, you’ll be greeted by the heavenly smell of chocolate wafting up from the nearby Nestlé factory.

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Photo of Andrew Cameron and Jessica Kennedy by Angela Besharah (Inside Light Studio)

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