When dying hospital patient Peter Ravenswaal seeks solace in the play Wrong Turn at Lungfish, he turns to the words of poets T.S. Eliot and Charles Beaudelaire for comfort.
Aside from some brief quotations, the same consolation was not available to the audience watching this Central Alberta Theatre production about life, death and the whole nine yards that opened on Thursday in the Nickle Studio at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.
Lungfish was written by Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley creator Garry Marshall — who’s obviously no Beaudelaire or Eliot.
For all of his heart’s-in-the-right-place knack for making 1970s TV comedies, Marshall wouldn’t know profundity if Arthur Fonzarelli spray painted it on the men’s room wall.
However, this dramedy co-written by the American producer and Lowell Ganz does contain some humour and a few moments approaching pathos.
And the local production, directed by Craig Scott, has two interesting lead performances that pick up steam, even as the play’s broad-brush-stroke plot stalls out in the last half hour.
The action opens with Ravenswaal, a cantankerous, blind patient at the heart of Marshall’s dramedy, giving his nurse (Anya Paulsen) a hard time because he can.
It turns out the former university dean is angry, bitter and scared. Ravenswaal, played by Innisfail actor Robbin Edgar, is a childless widower and an agnostic. With no family or faith to cling to during his fatal illness, he is grappling with the Big Questions in his final days.
Into his hospital room walks perky volunteer Anita Meredino (Tara Rorke), who’s prepared to read to Ravenswaal in her halting, semi-literate and nasal style.
At first, Ravenswaal doesn’t want her to stay, but his loneliness — combined with Meredino’s willingness to squeeze in a few chapters of a pornographic novel between poetry readings — make him reconsider throwing her out of his room.
Predictably, the miserable old coot and the unsophisticated young broad hold clashing world views, with Meredino seeing things from an optimistic, emotional perspective and Ravenswaal from a purely intellectual, pessimistic one.
As they argue their way through the Theory of Evolution, art and religion, some facts come to light that make Ravenswaal tackle the subject of inter-personal relationships. More specifically, he doesn’t get Meredino’s inexplicable devotion to her thuggish boyfriend Dominic De Caesar (Travis Johnson).
Through Ravenswaal’s intervention, Rorke’s character gradually begins to gather self confidence and self awareness. The old man eventually allows his softer side to show.
Edgar and Rorke’s portrayals of these two reluctant friends become more dimensional as the play progresses. If the script was sharper, less manipulative and more subtle, the ending might even have been tearful.
What can be said for Wrong Turn at Lungfish is that at least it doesn’t attempt to easily answer questions that are destined to be pondered for centuries to come.
And I guess you’ve got to give the playwrights some credit for asking the questions in the first place.
The play, with adult themes, continues to March 7.