Hilda’s Yard at The Foster Festival
After mounting The Writer, Norm Foster’s newest play and something of a departure for the prolific playwright, The Foster Festival returns to more familiar ground with its revival of his cockeyed comedy, Hilda’s Yard.
Set in 1956, in the backyard of the Hilda and Sam Fluck (Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Foster himself) the play opens on a hopeful note. Now that that their two adult children have finally moved out, Sam has decided to splurge on a 21-inch television set so that he and Hilda can enjoy their sunset years watching Gunsmoke. He rationalizes his decision because of all the money they’ll save by not having to feed the kids.
Alas, the dream is soon shattered. Son Gary (Daniel Briere) climbs over the back fence, hoping to elude the enforcers of a bookie to whom he owes $395. Oh yes, he has also been fired from his job delivering pizzas. He is followed close upon by daughter Janey (Erin MacKinnon) who has left her abusive husband of six months. Soon they are joined by Bobbi (Amaka Umeh), the girl Gary is smitten with and the proximate cause of his firing, and Beverly Woytowich, the charming bookie himself who blithely announces that he will collect the debt or “things will get broken.”
On this seemingly fragile premise, Foster builds a sturdy comedy that provides plenty of laughs en route to a happy ending. Gary blames his chronic unemployment on his odd name — Fluck. His father points out that it’s a proud name, brought to Canada by his Swiss grandparents who were acrobats. “The Flying Flucks,” Gary deadpans. Foster has fun with Gary’s ideas for new products that will become hugely successful fads years later, like Baby on Board signs (he calls them Child Inside) and the hula hoop. When Beverly, smitten with Janey, compares her to the sexy women he has seen walking on the streets of Rome, she tries to mimic the effect, to hilarious results.
Director Jim Mezon, a terrific actor who, alas, hasn’t been at the Shaw Festival for the last two seasons, has elicited wonderful performances from his cast and designer Peter Hartwell has once again provided a simple but marvelously effective set. Erin MacKinnon is perfection as Janey, pert and pretty and none too bright. When Beverly says “Your brother’s debt has been expunged” and realizes me may have to explain to her what that means, she waves him away with an airy, “Oh, I know what a sponge does.” As the gentleman criminal Beverly, Darren Keay makes a rather unbelievable character perfectly believable and when he is welcomed into the family fold, we buy it. Daniel Briere and Amaka Umeh as the head-over-heels in love Gary and his wiser inamorata are also very good.
Vanstone and Foster make a devoted couple. Both their love for their kids and their despair over their manifest failings are palpable. Foster’s acting, like his writing, is sharp and to the point, with no unnecessary flourishes. He frequently appears in his own work and I was told that when he plays a role it’s a signal that the play is one of his favorites. It occurred to me that he could have a lucrative career acting in television, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen. It might take him away from his writing.
Foster has been called Canada’s Neil Simon and the comparison is apt up to a point. But whereas Simon’s characters tend to be cynical New York types who seem to take pride in their snarky repartee and snide comebacks, Foster’s folks are down to earth Canadian types, unselfconscious and, dare I say it, polite in their interactions, even when threatening to kill someone. Indeed, Canadian critics have pointed out that Foster’s success is largely due to his uncanny ability to reflect the national character.
The humor in Hilda’s Yard is the sort of thing that has largely been banished from American stages thanks to television and theatre critics who insist that theatre must be transgressive or transgender or preferably both. “Oh, this is just a sitcom,” they might say. Perhaps. Yet the most successful sitcoms on the air know the value of pointing out that they were “filmed before a live studio audience.” If you’re American, do yourself a favor and next time you’re in Canada seek out a Norm Foster play. You’ll be glad you did. (Canadians are already in on the secret.)
Hilda’s Yard continues at The Foster Festival through July 26, 2019
The Foster Festival
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul Street
St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2