This script landed on the stage before it was ready. It’s in terrible shape.
In The Ones We Leave Behind, playwright Loretta Seto explores abandonment and belonging. On one of her first cases as a public trustee, Abby has to find anybody who might be related to Bernice, a 77-year-old woman who died without leaving a will—and whose body sat in her apartment for five months before it was discovered. If Abby can’t find any potential beneficiaries, the substantial funds in Bernice’s bank account will go to the state.
The central question is, “Why was Bernice so alone?”, but Seto gives us little reason to care about the answer. Abby reads aloud passages from Bernice’s journal, but that device is as unrewarding as it is artificial. Even though information is being handed to us on a plate, none of it makes Bernice a compelling or fully-fleshed character. Although she is at the centre of the story, Bernice remains a cipher.
Abby’s interactions with the living characters don’t provide much emotional access to the play, either. Mostly, Abby gets into repetitive arguments: Abby’s boyfriend Kyle wants her to be more emotionally available, which makes her furious; Abby’s mentor Greg, who has decades of experience as public trustee, urges her to be more professional while she insists he should be more humane; and Abby and her pushy mom argue about pretty much everything.
Much of the writing is clichéd. Professional conflict between a crusty veteran and a fiery newcomer is a threadbare trope. And, God save us, when Kyle wants to get romantic, he lays out a picnic on the floor of his apartment, complete with a fake candle and a tiny statue of the Eiffel Tower. “Dinner is served, madame.”
Too often, characters speak their subtext, and until just before the end of Act 1, virtually nothing changes. All of this makes for a very long first act.
That said, there is a little cluster of successes—and most of them have to do with the characterization of Abby’s mom Sylvia. As written, Sylvia is amusingly, often hilariously blunt and literal. When Sylvia says, “Abby’s stubborn sometimes”, and Kyle answers, “Tell me about it”, Sylvia shoots back in a perfect deadpan, “I just tell you.”
Clearly, Seto’s writing is tapping into a real dynamic here: on opening night, there was a large contingent in the audience that was howling at this kind of to-and-fro. Alannah Ong’s performance as Sylvia is terrific: Ong enlivens her understated naturalism with sly comic spin. And, importantly, as written, this character has a secret so she also has an internal life.
Other characterizations are a mixed bag. Jimmy Yi, who was wonderful in Kim’s Convenience, is surprisingly wooden as Greg. Brahm Taylor does what he can with Kyle, the walking cliché. And Josh Drebit is nicely contained as Thomas, a character who shows up later. Agnes Tong manages to find genuine heart in Abby although, in the early going, there’s not much she can do with the character’s relentless and unnuanced prickliness.
Gerald King’s painterly lighting provides surprising notes of grace.
THE ONES WE LEAVE BEHIND By Loretta Seto. Directed by John Cooper. Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre.At The Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, October 25. Continues until November 3. Tickets.
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