The Terrible Parents is worth investing in, now on stage in Toronto
Family dynamics are a messy, murky business. Family alienates and unifies us, sometimes simultaneously. Sky Gilbert’s The Terrible Parents, currently playing at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, is a domestic horror story that does just that. It is dressed up to amuse and entertain, but there’s deep pain and pathology pumping through its wounded heart.
Right out of the gate, we are faced with sexual repression and psychological abuse. Young siblings Cecil and Odette, caught sharing their new-found sexual awareness, are scolded by their intrusive and overbearing parents, Hector and Amelia.
From then on, the first act is a series of vignettes that illustrate Hector and Amelia’s manipulative and self-serving antics, recklessly burdening their impressionable offspring with grotesque and poisonous ideas. These characters speak in cliches and the parents’ inappropriate behaviour is, for the most part, played for laughs.
With the exception of Gavin Crawford’s strikingly nuanced portrayal of the father, the first half felt goofy and self-aware. Ed Roy’s Amelia comes across as the man in drag that he is and Robin Sharp and Katie Sly, as young Cecil and Odette, are directed to be stilted and robotic, despite their considerable presence and energy. It is all very intentional, stylish and entertaining, but I couldn’t really invest in these people.
Then the second acts hits and, oh boy, does it pack a wallop!
Crawford takes over the role of the mother, with a new personality named Amy, and Roy appears as her new lover, a married man named Jerry. We don’t see any more of that bright sit-com lighting of the first act; we are now drenched in sensual, murky, sometimes garish colour. And the camp gives way to intense melodrama.
All four actors give richer, weightier portrayals in this second half.
Roy’s Jerry is charismatic with just enough sleaze to be endearing, but his brief turn as a French waiter was truly enchanting. It could so easily have become lecherous, but Roy gives us a playfully lustful, intensely watchful gaze that seems effortlessly classy and restrained.
Even as their characters age, Sharp and Sly maintain a wide-eyed and gentle sincerity that comes off child-like. This becomes quite unsettling in the final scenes as they confront their mother and try to have the difficult conversations that might have given them closure. While I found them cloying in the first half, their perpetual little-kid voices serve to demonstrate just how deeply their awful childhoods have warped their psyches. In his final scene, Sharp’s vulnerability is truly cringe-worthy and a powerful illustration of the lasting damage of irresponsible parenting.
Gavin Crawford is stunning as Amy! She is not a good mother or a healthy person, but she is achingly human. So different from Roy’s intentionally oblivious and deranged caricature, Crawford shows us a passionate yet broken woman who is selfish, needy and profoundly disappointed by her own life. She is incapable of finding any peace with herself and is completely mystified by the tormented offspring shaped by her own warped psyche.
It became clear to me how necessary it was for the first act to seem so unreal. The contrasting styles throws the tragic elements of this story into sharp relief. If played straight, how would I have responded to some of the more horrific elements of Cecil and Odette’s upbringing? I may have just shut down completely. After experiencing the raw pain of the finale, my imagination is left to wipe off the comforting clown make-up that dulled earlier horrors.
I would love to share and unpack all my favourite bits from this performance, but instead I encourage you to go see it. And if, at first, you find it too silly to adequately bear the weight of its subject, know that the play’s real insight is a slow burn.
I’m repeating myself here, but I just have to restate what a thrill it is to watch Gavin Crawford in both of his roles. His every glance is rich and resonant.
- The Terrible Parents is playing until April 17, 2016 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30pm
- Tickets are PWYC to $32, see website for rush ticket and group rate options
- Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by phone (416-975-8555) or online
Photo of Ed Roy and Gavin Crawford provided by Seanna Kennedy