Langham Court Theatre is poised to launch its 87th season with the final instalment of George F. Walker’s East End Trilogy, a series of dark comedies dealing with the vicissitudes of the dysfunctional Dawson family, an east end Toronto family with more than their fair share of troubles.
This instalment, entitled Escape From Happiness, is a dark comedy praised by reviewers across the continent as being unabashedly funny while simultaneously commanding respect and eliciting sympathy for the main characters.
The play tells the story of Nora, the matriarch of a troubled working-class Toronto family that includes a daughter who is an unstable runaway mother, a beat-up, car thieving son-in-law, and a hot tempered daughter, struggling with her own sexuality.
Add in an abusive father who claims to have mended his ways, drug dealers in the basement and police brutality — the term comedy doesn’t spring to mind.
Yet, according to director Wendy Merk, the clear sighted but highly myopic approach of the family to their problems makes the play memorable and the characters more than a little sympathetic.
“It’s the juxtaposition of the situations they’re in and the things that they say and do that makes this play memorable,” said Merk.
“It’s typically Canadian, and it resonates with people who look at the troubles these people have…their backs against the wall…and how they still manage to do what they need to do to survive. We enter their world, and somehow we know these people. They speak plainly with little or no sub-text and their belief in what they’re doing makes even their craziest behaviour seem perfectly reasonable, even a little tender.”
Merk added the set design by Don Kieth goes a long way to making the play work.
He’s managed to take the run-down family home and transform it into a quirky environment for the action.
The hardest thing about staging the play, said Merk, is managing the quick paced dialogue between characters, particularly given that up to seven actors may be on stage at any given time.
“This is an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s where the pacing is critical to the success of the play. Walker has managed to revive that screw-ball approach to comedy, but it isn’t easy to perform,” Merk said.
Walker’s ability to convey the world of Toronto’s east end is rooted in his own past. He was born and raised in that neighbourhood and drove a cab in Toronto throughout the 1970s.
Merk said the play goes beyond the obvious comic content to leave the audience with a sense of hope and the belief that the love of family can rescue people from the most difficult of circumstances.
Escape From Happiness was first produced at the Factory Theatre in 1992, becoming the final instalment of the East End Plays, a series that also includes Criminals in Love, Better Living, Beautiful City and Love and Anger.
The play runs at Langham Court Theatre (805 Langham Crt.,) between April 20 and May 7.
Tickets are available at the theatre box office or online at langhamtheatre.ca.