The storytelling in Happy Place could be more focused and compelling, but some of the play’s content pierces to the heart of the current cultural moment and the cast is stellar.
In Happy Place, playwright Pamela Mala Sinha takes us to an upscale inpatient treatment centre for women who have attempted suicide. Samira has just arrived. She knows that she was raped and tortured five years earlier, but she can’t remember the event in enough detail to identify and accuse her attacker. “I want to cut it out of my head. What I can’t remember,” she says.
The subject matter is important, but, structurally, problems crop up right away. Sinha was written a series of scenes that are so short they might work better in film, but they sit awkwardly on the stage. And it’s not like we’re learning a lot in these scenes. The centre discourages clients from asking one another questions, so the stories of the six clients we meet—there is also a female counselor—are teased out too slowly.
And it’s hard to identify the core narrative. If I can give an example that might be a bit theatre nerdy: Samira, the protagonist isn’t on-stage for the heart of the Act 1 culmination. As the central figure, you’d expect her to play a significant role in such a crucial plot point. But, instead, a potty-mouthed older woman named Mildred hurls a bowl at terminally perky resident named Joyce and suddenly recovers a repressed memory. Dramatically, this almost feels like it comes out of nowhere and, although the effect of the revelation on Mildred must be monumental, her response is hardly explored in the ensuing action.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Because it unfolds too slowly and because it’s unfocused, Happy Place doesn’t go as deep as it could.
That said, there are moments when Happy Place hits its marks and they are devastating. Many of the temporary residents in the facility have been sexually brutalized and, during some passages, watching Happy Place knocks the wind out of you as it embodies the sorrow beneath the “Me too” phenomenon. In the strongest scene in the play, for instance, Samira sits on the floor of her friend Celine’s bedroom. She trusts Celine. But she has waited until the middle of the night when her friend is asleep to begin to reveal her grief.
You really couldn’t ask for a better cast. Adele Noronha, who’s playing Samira, delivers a contained and flawlessly honest portrait. Nicola Cavendish is, predictably, excellent as the mischievous, deeply wounded Mildred. Almost too contained at first as a grieving divorcée named Rosemary, Colleen Wheeler delivers the emotional goods when the time comes. And I was knocked out by Laara Sadiq’s performance as the insinuating, unbalanced Nina. I’ve been watching Sadiq for decades and I’ve never seen anything like this reptilian texture from her before. Diane Brown brings excellent comic timing to the smiley Joyce, Sereana Malani finds the quiet intelligence in Celine, and Donna Yamamoto thoroughly embodies compassion as the therapist Louise.
Structurally, Act 2 works better than Act 1: the playwright introduces a potentially dangerous object, which gives the story much-needed concrete grounding. There is a new, annoying feature—every character gets an emotional aria, which gets predictable—but I appreciate Sinha’s avoidance of tidy endings.
Pam Johnson’s set is both busy—the script takes place in far too many locales—and bland: it’s superficially tasteful but aspires to nothing more. Christine Reimer’s costume design features an awful lot of shawls and scarves: it looks like the women have all shopped at the same store, and they’re paying a thousand dollars a day to stay in this facility; are we supposed to believe it’s cold in there?
The heart of Happy Place is true. But its contours need more definition.
HAPPY PLACE By Pamela Mala Sinha. Directed by Roy Surette. A Touchstone Theatre production in association with Ruby Slippers Theatre and Diwali in BC at the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, October 20 and Sunday, October 22. Continues until October 29.
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