Thanks for Giving: thanks for the ambition

Margo Kane is in Thanks for Giving at the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage.

This image of Margo Kane looks playful, but there’s a lot of darkness along with the laughs in Thanks for Giving.

It’s as if playwright Kevin Loring has tried to cram half a dozen Greek tragedies—plus a couple of episodes of The Honeymooners—into one evening. His new play, Thanks for Giving, is inspiringly ambitious, often funny, sometimes beautiful, and structurally scattershot.

Like a Greek tragedy, Thanks for Giving tells a story of family trauma, but this time, instead of the House of Atreus, it’s the Bear Clan. And it starts off with Pa, the settler grandfather, shooting a grizzly sow and her two cubs. When Pa’s wife Nan finds out about this over Thanksgiving dinner, she is furious: her grandmother taught her that the grizzly is a healer—and a relative.

There are a couple of sets of twins in the family, which made the relationships so confusing to me that, by intermission, I almost had to get somebody to draw me a diagram. But let’s skip all that and get to the major characters. Nan’s daughter Sue was in an accident and is struggling with pain and substance use. Craving structure, her son John joins the army; and lesbian Marie is furious about colonialism. Sue’s nephew Clayton, who drives a truck for a living, feels overshadowed by his smartypants cousins.

I got more thematic than narrative satisfaction out of Thanks for Giving. Thematically, it seems to be about reclaiming stories—we hear Nan talk about her experience of residential school, for instance—and about the healing power of the feminine. In an interview in the program, Loring, who is N’lakap’amux from the Lytton First Nation, says that, in his tradition, the grizzly is feminine. He also refers to the “European bias towards masculine power.” And that’s what we see: the deleterious effects of colonialism and masculinity and the restorative power of the indigenous and female.

Okay. But that’s not the same as feeling the satisfaction of hearing a well-told story. On opening night, the first act ran about an hour and fifteen minutes, but it felt longer: I was ready for it to end about half an hour before it did. I think that’s largely because I couldn’t find the narrative core. I knew what people were concerned with—there were lots of ideas flying around—but I couldn’t identify a central character or what that character was trying to do. In terms of action, there isn’t much of an arc, so there isn’t much sense of dramatic accumulation either.

To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t enough events; the play contains plenty of those: people die and a character who has barely considered getting pregnant is suddenly giving birth; characters are traumatized and recover from trauma. But there’s so much happening and so little focus that none of this is explored with much depth.

Still, Thanks for Giving feels like it’s on the brink of becoming a significant dramatic work. That’s partly because of Loring’s physical vision for the piece, which is exquisitely realized under his direction in this Arts Club production. This show looks frickin’ fantastic.

Designer Ted Roberts has created a West Coast rainforest. A kitchen counter and other set pieces come and go but there’s no mistaking that nature is the dominant force. Realistic trees in the foreground are backed by more abstracted cutouts that echo the liquid forms of painter Tom Thomson. Jeff Harrison lights this so lushly that you can almost feel the mist.

And Loring’s vision goes deeper than that. The bear’s carcass hangs over the proceedings like a mammoth crucifix. And, embodied by performer Shiyam-Priya, the spirit of that bear dances, creating some of the most thrilling passages of the evening.

There’s a deep importance to what Loring is saying, too. Nowhere is that more evident than in the dinner scene, in which Marie lays out the true, horrific history of the Thanksgiving holiday: it’s the amalgamation of several similar feasts that celebrated the slaughter of First Nations people. Divulging that kind of information can come across as a PC harangue, of course, and Loring cleverly lets that happen: when Pa sends Marie to get more gravy, everybody else at the table breathes a collective sigh of relief. Marie is a pain in the ass. She’s also right.

Some of the acting in this production is excellent. Playing Nan with a combination of dry wit and deep feeling, Margo Kane is the heart of the production, and, in terms of skill and commitment, Tom McBeath (Pa) matches her step for step. Denech’Cho Thompson finds all of Clayton’s working-man’s swagger and resentment.

On the other hand, some of the performers overact. Playing Marie’s girlfriend Sam, for instance, Leslie Dos Remedios tends to telegraph what her character is feeling. And, on opening night, it didn’t feel like Andrea Menard was completely immersed in Sue’s reality.

For much of Act 1 and during some passages in Act 2, I was very persuaded by Thanks for Giving: I was in the thrall of its vision, execution, and significance. I admire its ambition; I just wish it were more focused.

THANKS FOR GIVING Written and directed by Kevin Loring. And Arts Club Theatre production at the Granville Island Stage on October 11. Continues until November 4.

Get your tickets here.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Is comparing Thanks for Giving to a Greek Tragedy really the most effective way to understand the play’s fictional world? Is that the only dramaturgical equivalent you can think of?

    • Colin Thomas says:

      In comparing Thanks for Giving to Greek tragedy, I’m specifically referring to the idea of significant family trauma. On that level, I think the comparison holds.
      That said, I’m interested in whatever alternatives you might have in terms of dramaturgical equivalents.

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