Aunt Dan and Lemon challenges Toronto audiences to examine our own self-perception, morality
Shadowtime Productions’ Aunt Dan and Lemon, playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, is a play with a message. It’s delivered by the title characters with a subtle smirk so as to have us contemplate our personal morality – and that of the human race as a whole – long after we leave the theatre.
In a 1986 essay by playwright Wallace Shawn – excerpted in the program – the message is explained clearly in his own words: “I’ve written a play in which it’s hard to say whether you like some of the people or you don’t like them…the things people say are a complex jumble of lies, truth, half-truth, rationality, and irrationality.” Shawn ends the paragraph saying these are the same things he encounters when speaking with his friends and interacting with the world at large.
I think what Aunt Dan and Lemon asks us to ask ourselves is: Are we really as innocent as we think we are?
Aunt Dan and Lemon opens with Lemon (Helen Juvonen) greeting and welcoming us into her flat. She explains her simple life and the enjoyment she gets from drinking various juices and escaping through the magic of reading books . She spends the majority of her time in her flat because of an undisclosed and possibly fictitious illness. Currently, she is reading a book about the Nazis.
Juvonen is excellent as Lemon. She plays her with a youthful innocence – highlighted when she speaks frankly about the atrocities and motivations of the Nazis from her current book. She is matter-of-fact and non-reactive, as though she were telling us about her breakfast, which paints a great picture of who Lemon is, and her world-view.
In addition, I enjoyed watching Juvonen react with simple facial expressions in the background to the various flashback scenes occurring before her. She was always engaged and involved and never appeared to lose focus.
Lemon then takes us back to a summer in her youth, when her father’s friend, Aunt Dan (Joanne Latimer), stayed with her family at their house. Aunt Dan would spend every evening regaling Lemon with tales of her past, and also explaining to her the finer points of Henry Kissinger’s involvement with the Vietnam War.
Latimer is both warm and motherly with Lemon when telling of her carefree, youthful exploits, and also cold and calculating when staunchly defending Kissinger’s actions to Lemon’s mother (Jane Hailes). I found her monologue on the latter dragged in content, but Latimer delivered it with such passion, the positive performance outweighed any drawbacks.
Juvonen and Latimer work well together and I felt there was a real bond between their characters. It was displayed by the embrace (as pictured above) and in the jovial way Aunt Dan explains the political machinations involving the U.S. and the Vietnam War – by using expertly chosen stuffed animals. This speaks to their commitment to the roles and building that relationship on stage.
Jane Hailes wins the “Accent Chameleon” award for the show. In playing the three roles of Mother, June, and Flora, Hailes flips between upper-crust English and Cockney without missing a beat.
At its close, Lemon speaks about human beings and the way we easily rationalize certain behaviours, killing being the specific focus here. Again, Juvonen’s matter-of-fact, rational tone gives weight to the message and allows it to hit harder. I was half expecting there to be a twist revealing Lemon to have grown into a killer, just because she has rationalized it so well.
At 100 minutes and no intermission, the show runs smooth beyond that one blip which Latimer acted through with expertise. Aunt Dan and Lemon is more than a simple theatre show. It is a history lesson, a morality tale, and a philosophy class that pushes everyone to consider exactly how they feel about themselves and the world they live in.
- Aunt Dan and Lemon is playing until September 25, 2016 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, with additional Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm
- Ticket are $30, $25 for Students, Seniors, and Artsworkers, and can be purchased online or at the box office, (416) 504-7529. Tickets are available online until 4 hours prior to the performance. Any subsequent tickets can be purchased at the box office starting 4 hours prior to the performance.
Photo of Joanne Latimer and Helen Juvonen by Roger Humbert.