Of all the challenges young people face on the way to adulthood, finding their own paths through family entanglements could be the toughest test of all.
It certainly proves to be a trial by fire for Serge, the beleaguered protagonist in Michel Tremblay’s critically lauded play, Bonjour, La, Bonjour. An English language version of the drama, translated by Bill Glassco, opened Thursday night at Studio A in the Red Deer College Arts Centre.
Serge is convincingly played by RDC Theatre Studies student Dan Stilwell as a man overwhelmed by family obligations, expectations, and guilt — which is laid on as thick as flea-bitten mattresses by his two complaining aunts and three needy older sisters.
Stilwell and his fellow RDC cast members exist in a world very much apart from the Quebec of 35 years ago, both linguistically and culturally. But under the direction of Thomas Usher, they did a great job of bringing to life Tremblay’s colourfully disfunctional French-Canadian family from a poor part of Montreal.
Designer Mike Patton helped by creating an abstract set that’s a masterpiece of squalor. It involves broken bottles scattered at curb-side and old furniture hanging from ropes at unsettling angles over the audience. The jarring surroundings bring to mind Gabrielle Roy’s classic French-Canadian Depression-era novel The Tin Flute, which depicts the poor moving each month into smaller, more wretched surroundings.
The poor in Bonjour, La, Bonjour tend to have jobs or pensions and a better sense of humour.
But the only family member who can’t complain about being economically deprived is Serge’s oldest sister Lucienne, who succeeded in marrying an Anglais doctor.
Despite her mansion and three children, Lucienne, played by Chantel Vaage, is unhappy with life in general. Her fortunate circumstances haven’t given her a satisfactory marriage, and have isolated her from the rest of the clan, who disparagingly refer to Lucienne as “The Lady of Westmount.”
Serge’s other two older sisters, Denise and Monique, portrayed by Kelsey White and Kayla Whitingham, are similarly disappointed in their own marriages, and attempt to drown their sorrows in food and prescription pills.
Like Lucienne, they want Serge’s constant attention and sympathy. They aren’t above harassing their brother with reminiscences about how they helped raise him after their mother died, in the hope his sense of obligation will kick in to their advantage.
Lucienne goes one better — she knows Serge’s deeply-held secret involving his fourth and youngest sister, Nicole (who is vulnerably portrayed by Ashley Turner) — and isn’t afraid of using it to get her brother to do her bidding.
Serge clearly has a decision to make — well, several decisions.
Among them is what to do about his father, Armand, who’s slowly being driven mad by the nattering interference of his two aging, live-in sisters. The hard-of-hearing, chain-smoking dad is played by Ben Terlesky as a retired man who deserves some peace. He needs to get away from the aunts from hell, Gilberte and Charlotte, played by Kirstie Gallant and Caitlin Meachin.
Without exception, everyone in this uniformly fine cast delivers a realistic performance that doesn’t veer into caricature or slip into overwrought emotion.
The conflicted family members in this adult-themed drama could have easily lapsed into screaming at each other, so it’s to the young actors’ (and Usher’s) credit that feelings of anger, frustration, and desperation were delivered in more varied and interesting ways.
While Tremblay’s juxtaposition of dialogue, spoken by various characters, occasionally made it hard to concentrate on important conversations, stagnant staging was my main quibble. Too many prolonged speeches were delivered by actors standing on one spot. This might have been because of too-small stage platforms.
In any case, Tremblay’s smart writing and the interesting characterizations kept the audience’s attention.
In the end, Bonjour, La, Bonjour isn’t so much an anti-family play as it is about knowing what you want and claiming your own happiness — regardless of other people’s expectations.
The play runs Oct 9, 10, and 14-17.