Central Alberta Theatre’s season opener, Novel House, starts with narrator James Novel musing about how everything begins in the dark — a fitting analogy for Friday’s performance.
Not only was stage lighting on the fritz at the Black Knight Inn dinner theatre, leaving actors shrouded in shadows for the first act, but the plot left the audience increasingly in the dark about where this dram-edy by Jayson McDonald was heading.
McDonald is a young playwright, maybe that’s his excuse. But he chose to throw an awful lot of disparate elements into this play that covers three years of ups and downs in the life of a Ontario family in the 1970s.
His play seeks to be taken seriously as a drama with some bittersweet and comic moments, yet it operates with painfully hackneyed dialogue — one character’s response to hearing “yes” to his marriage proposal is “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
Another character vows he loves his wife “more than the world.”
Real people don’t talk like that — if they do, they shouldn’t.
Out of nowhere, characters who are supposed to be handling realistic life situations, such as the loss of loved ones and martial breakdown, are called upon to behave unnaturally. For instance, father-figure and aspiring book writer, James Novel, suddenly starts waxing poetic — at considerable length — about the glories of springtime.
One moment Grandpa Novel is reminiscing about war-time horrors and the next he is talking to an appliance — not only talking to it, but actually pressing the start button to “hear” the blender’s buzzingly annoying “response.”
Too much just didn’t add up in Novel House. This is supposed to be a play that can take an audience from laughter to tears, but how can you be moved when you can’t take the characters seriously?
Now that the script has been fingered for much of the blame, it’s only fair to say that veteran CAT director Judy Moody did a good job of moving the action along.
Her cast also made a valiant effort to make the Novels believable.
Special kudos go to Jaelene Stearns, as feisty daughter Rebecca Novel, for earning our sympathy when Rebecca undergoes a terrible loss and struggles to cope with broken expectations.
As well, Jeff Challoner is so amiable an actor that he actually makes the bizarro Grandpa the play’s most empathetic character.
The rest of the cast cme into their own in the very last scene, when their characters are returning from a celebration and are tipsy. Maybe that means that they should loosen up much earlier on.
This especially applies to Wanda Temple as mother figure, Mary Novel, who’s supposed to be a little scattered. Her character is quite natural and funny in the last scene, so Temple would do well to channel this easy-going humour earlier in the play.
Cody Hagg, as Rebecca’s significant other, also found his pace as the play progressed.
David Henderson, as James Novel, plays jovial very well, but needs to work on losing the smile when life events take a darker turn.
As usual, CAT designers Betty Moroz and Joan Truckle did a nice job of creating the living room setting of Novel House and Donna Reiswig must have had a blast picking out vintage ‘70s costumes, such as Rebecca’s Gravol-peach plaza pants.
Thank goodness some trends only live once.