Coming to terms with the past and moving forward in Ensemble Theatre Company’s Summer Repertory Festival

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Ensemble Theatre Company Summer Repertory Festival: The Drawer Boy, Born Yesterday, Superior Donuts | Jericho Arts Centre | July 12 – August 16, 2019

Superior Donuts

Of the three shows in this year’s festival, Superior Donuts stands out for both its sharp social commentary and strong performances. Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, which was adapted as a TV sitcom in 2017, includes plenty of laugh-out-loud moments along with many sobering, thought-provoking ones.

Arthur Przybyszewski (David Nykl) and Franco Wicks (Chris Francisque) are an odd couple working at Arthur’s family donut shop in Chicago. Arthur has been plodding along in the same rut for years until one day when Franco comes knocking looking for a job.

The two couldn’t be more different, but they have a positive impact on each other as Franco infuses the shop with some much-needed enthusiasm and optimism. Their performances are equally matched as Nykl walks around carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and summons a great deal of effort to form a sentence; as he says, “The root of Polish character is hopelessness.” Francisque is luminous as the starry-eyed Franco and even his rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely” is spot on.

Both characters have past that catch up with them. Arthur hasn’t seen his daughter in years and can’t stop thinking about it. We learn about his past as draft resistor through monologues. Franco’s gambling debts catch up with him and he’s visited by two thugs looking for payment. Meanwhile Arthur’s friend and fellow business owner, Max Tarasov (Steve James), is pressuring Arthur to sell his shop so he can expand his growing electronics empire.

The play includes questions of race from the opening scenes as two cops ask Arthur about vandalism in his shop and Max makes a comment about “black sons of bitches.” No offence he says to James (Anthony Santiago), the black cop. James’ partner Randy (Alexis Kellum-Creer) turns out to be love interest for Randy.

Franco also brings up race right after he’s hired. He challenges Arthur to name 10 black poets, and to his surprise Arthur succeeds. Franco is an aspiring writer who claims he’s written the “great American novel,” and he asks Arthur to be the first person to read his stack of legal pads and loose leaf.

The romance between Arthur and Randy feels a bit awkward at first, but Arthur is funny as he struggles to pull the trigger and ask her out. With some encouragement from Franco, he finally makes a move.

Arthur and Franco both have a lot of baggage from their pasts holding them back, but their relationship helps both of them to move on and see another perspective. Alone, they are two extremes on the emotional spectrum, but together they begin to find a balance. While I wouldn’t say this play has a happy ending, it has a lot to say about the power of friendship and the importance of reckoning with one’s past in order to find happiness.

Born Yesterday

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Once Billie (Alexis Kellum-Creer) starts reading and opening her mind to new ideas and new possibilities, she comes to the conclusion that there must be something better for her out there. She realizes that her relationship with the bombastic, over-confident, Trumpesque Harry Brock (Paul Herbert) is not healthy, and with the help of her tutor-turned-lover, Paul Verrall (Tariq Leslie), she outwits Harry and moves on with her life once and for all.

Garson Kanin’s play may have premiered on Broadway in 1946, but it’s as relevant as ever today: money still talks in politics. It’s no wonder the story has been brought back many times over the decades. It was adapted for the silver screen in both 1950 and 1993, and had Broadway revivals in 1989 and 2011.

For this story to be effective, the two leads need to have great on-stage chemistry and really embody their distinct character traits — and they didn’t disappoint. Herbert was wonderfully brazen and horribly self-centered, while Kellum-Creer was a perfect ingénue who turned on the charm when needed. Another standout was David Wallace as Brock’s emotionally unstable lawyer who had some memorable lines such as, “I can spot a loophole at 20 paces.”

Harry is in Washington, DC to try to break into politics, only he’s a bumbling fool who has no idea what he’s doing. He’s worried that Billie will embarrass him, so he hires Verrall to teach her a thing or two. The plan soon backfires as she becomes curious and wants to know more about his business dealings.

One of the most memorable scenes between Bille and Harry is a game of gin rummy. Billie keeps winning, and Harry becomes increasingly angry. To add insult to injury, Billie hums contentedly. The scene has very little dialogue, but is one of the most powerful thanks to their performances.  

The action never dragged, and the blocking was very well done with furniture lining the edges of the three-sided stage. The final scenes are full of triumph for Billie who outsmarts Harry and finally leaves him. In a moment of frustration, Billie yells “facist!” at Harry, who proceeds to run to the dictionary to look it up. As he says, “so much trouble on account of a dame reads a book.”

The Drawer Boy

This 1999 play by Michael Healey is a decent story that seems to have the potential for greatness, but with this cast and staging, it drags and doesn’t quite hit the mark when it comes to emotional impact of the relationship between the three flawed characters.

Miles (Chris Lam) arrives at Angus’ (James Gill) and Morgan’s (Darcey Johnson) farm looking for material for his new play. He quickly realizes that Angus has some kind of mental disability and that Morgan is in control. There is a great deal of commentary about Miles’ lack of farm knowledge, and Morgan teases him by saying things like they need to “rotate the crops” (dig them all up and replant them). Miles asks questions such as whether the cows find it traumatic to be milked so much. While these lines would normally pack more of a comedy punch, they didn’t register right away and the delivery was flat.

Angus plods along going about his routine, constantly asking Miles who he is and what he’s doing there. It seems he lost his short term memory during the war and now defers to Morgan for everything. “Better ask Morgan” is his refrain.

One day Miles hears Morgan telling Angus a story about how he was injured and what happened to him. He decides to use the story in his play, but when Morgan finds out he is upset and begins acting very strangely. After seeing the story acted out by others on stage, Angus begins to remember things, and he begins to piece together what happened all those years ago — only it seems that Morgan may not have been telling the truth as he tries to distract Angus from his memories. It is during this scene, just before intermission, when the play begins to pick up steam and gain some emotional stakes.

It seems that Angus can remember things if they were in a story, and he can especially remember them when they are acted out — it’s a nice sentiment about the power of stories and the power of theatre, but the connection to the characters, and thus the emotional impact of the story, is not as strong as it could be. When we come to the climax and then find out the truth about their past, it feels matter of fact.

James Gill’s performance as Angus is the strongest — he is consistent and child-like as he goes about his days not questioning anything. We do feel sympathy for him, and by the end we’re not sure how he and Morgan will go back to their quiet existence on the farm.

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