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Lights — but not much action

by | Dec 4, 2021 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for the play Lights

This isn’t a production shot, but it’s cool. (Photo of Susinn McFarlen by David Cooper)

On opening night, several people told me that they enjoyed Touchstone Theatre’s production of Adam Grant Warren’s new play Lights. I did not. I’m going to lay out my reasons, not because I’m trying to suck the pleasure out of anybody’s experience, but because I have faith that discussion and a variety of opinions can be helpful.

In Warren’s script, a guy named Evan flies to St. John’s to spend Christmas with his mom Nancy, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The best thing about this play is that it doesn’t turn Nancy into a tragic figure who’s entirely defined by her illness. She’s witty. She’s a family member and everybody’s trying to figure out the next steps. Similarly, Evan’s wheelchair doesn’t define him, although issues do come up. He accuses Nancy of selfishness, for instance, because she insisted on raising him in a lovely house — full of stairs.

Beyond that, though, there are few surprises and not much insight. The script teases Nancy’s mental decline for ages — she forgets things, she searches for words, she has sudden bursts of anger — before finally naming Alzheimer’s and getting on with things. Even then, the story is poorly defined because Evan, who’s the protagonist, doesn’t have a clear objective. Yes, he wants to help his mom, but he takes his sweet time before making a concrete offer.

Some will argue that the things I’m complaining about are actually marks of the script’s subtlety. That argument would hold if the play were rich with subtext, but it’s not. The emotional tone — and even the physical image — of the resolution are predictable.

So the evening is flat — with flashes of melodrama. When Evan confronts his mom about the reason she was fired from her job as an elementary schoolteacher, for instance, director Roy Surette pushes the moment to be bigger than necessary.

Carolyn Rapanos’s set, with its awkward spaces and garish colours, doesn’t help.

Fortunately, the actors fare better. Leslie Dos Remedios plays Sarah, Evan’s wife, who eventually flies in from Vancouver — and brings a welcome groundedness with her. In my favourite line delivery of the evening, she asks Nancy, simply, honestly, “How are you? How are things?” When he’s not straining to fill big emotional moments, playwright Warren plays Evan credibly. And it’s great that, in Evan’s movement around the house, Lights gives us a glimpse into the reality of living with a significant degree of cerebral palsy. As always, Susinn McFarlen, who’s playing Nancy, is charismatically vivacious. And she fully inhabits the emotion of the piece — in a speech in which Nancy begs Evan not to let her think, when her decline is severe, that she’s looking out a window when she’s just looking at a picture of a landscape, for instance.

There are a handful of these small moments in Lights. Artistically, they are the greatest strengths of this iteration. In a draft with a more solid structure, they would shine more brightly.

LIGHTS by Adam Grant Warren. Directed by Roy Surette. A Touchstone Theatre production in association with the Firehall Arts Centre at the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, December 3. Continues until December 12. Tickets


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