'Withrow Park' by Morris Panych
Now onstage at Tarragon Theatre
Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann. Foreground: Johnathan Sousa. Background: Benedict Campbell, Corinne Koslo, Nancy Palk
“Quirky and mysterious, ‘Withrow Park’s’ surrealism asks of its audience if we are to settle for the ordinary routine, or is there more with the remaining time left in our lives? At times, the script is hilariously funny. Other times, it prods deep into an important understanding of our temporal existence in the here and now.”
The lives of three 60-year-olds are forever changed when a handsome young individual in a wrinkled suit enters their lives.
Arthur (Benedict Campbell) and Janet (Nancy Palk) have been divorced for a few years. They still live together for convenience’s sake in the same house Arthur’s late mother owned. A retired Social Studies teacher, Arthur announced he was gay. He is trying to find himself again amid all this upheaval in his personal life. Janet is ‘civil’ to her ex-husband, but her voice has an underlying tension. She has her own health issues to monitor.
Janet’s sister, Marion (Corrine Koslo), also lives with them. She has her own emotional and personal issues and uses sarcasm to cope. She also doesn’t like leaving the house. She likes to read and is seen at her first entrance hugging a novel. Does she prefer not to confront reality and embrace make-believe? Before Janet and Arthur were married, he dated Marion for a bit before ending it with her and then dating her sister.
Arthur, Janet, and Marion seem to pass the days by looking outside their living room window across the street at Toronto’s Withrow Park. They’re indifferent about things at this point in their lives. For example, Janet shops at the local market because they will have the same thing they’ve always had for dinner. There’s little menu variety. The three also pay attention to meaningless activities of ordinary park activities – children playing, dog walkers passing by, and people chatting.
At the top of the show, an unknown voice knocks at the door to introduce himself as he’s new to the neighbourhood. We learn later this is Simon (Johnathan Sousa) who alters the course of events. Janet and Marion become smitten with his appearance and notice his wrinkled suit. During dinner, there are snippets where Arthur hints at his attraction to the young man.
But there’s something mysteriously surreal about Simon that the ladies just can’t decipher when he’s invited to dinner. A clue without spoiling the revelation – a clever onstage visual dramatic technique catches the audience’s attention just before he can be seen through the window.
Ken MacDonald’s set design catches the eye. The living/sitting room is comfortably detailed. There are three wing-tipped chairs just slightly off-centre stage. Two chairs face forward, and one is angled slightly. The living/sitting room windows are another focal point. The panes appear distorted. When one looks out the window, does he/she see what is occurring at any given moment? Offstage and up centre left, there is a dividing wall where the front door is not seen, but we can hear voices at the door. There appears to be a swinging door to indicate the kitchen. Another door indicates another room of the house.
There appears to be a fallen tree hanging over the action in the beautifully decorated set, creating a sense of figurative and literal hopelessness, uselessness, and sadness. Kimberly Purtell’s, at times, shadowy lighting designs enhance the mystery of this captured moment in time. Jacob Lin’s 林鴻恩 sound designs and set change musical compositions fluidly maintain the unfolding plot.
Playwright Morris Panych’s quirky, unconventional script of quick-witted banter and one-line zingers provides an appropriate juxtaposition to wondering if there’s more to life than just the ordinary, daily routine. Arthur, Janet, and Marion appear to be looking out through a distorted windowpane and seeing the world in a certain way. But Director Jackie Maxwell, in her Programme Note, writes something that caught my attention about this play. During the pandemic, she would take walks through Withrow Park and admire the ‘tall, imposing [houses] with rows of large windows. These windows fascinated me as both a person on the outside looking in, but also imagining what it would be like to be on the inside looking out.”
Is ‘Withrow Park’ a pandemic play that people thought would be written about that time?
Well, not really. Instead, Maxwell calls the play a revelation of a world behind windows she stared at while walking her circuit through the park—ergo, significant changes in the world that we thought we knew produced revelations.
The revelations within ‘Withrow Park’ might just defy logical reasoning.
They certainly make for good theatre.
Maxwell's direction is imbued with an inquisitive and playful spirit that engages the audience. We want to learn more about Janet, Arthur, and Marion - three individuals who have grown tired of being mere observers and long to break free from their self-imposed isolation and engage with the world around them. They invite Simon to dinner, an inexplicable and metaphysical individual who makes them question and test what they think they know.
The fine cast drives the story forward with gusto.
As wisecracking Marion, Corinne Koslo’s spitfire one-line zingers are often hilarious. But there’s more to Marion than her ornery approach to spying on the neighbours, and Koslo beautifully underscores this about the character. The audience learns something about Marion that cuts deeply into the heart. Marion longs to connect meaningfully with another individual, and Koslo underscores this in her performance without reverting to emotionally saccharine tactics.
Benedict Campbell and Nancy Palk are credible as the marital exes. The traditional gender roles were not observed in their arrangement and were reversed. Palk’s Janet is upfront and direct, perhaps something she has learned due to the marriage breakdown. For example, she bluntly comments on his inappropriate clothing attire before Simon arrives for dinner. And she’s right. He is dressed rather slovenly in a shirt that is far too large on him.
Arthur has sheepishly returned home because he does not want to be alone when his lover, a pediatrician, leaves and heads to California for another man, a dog walker. Campbell thankfully does not portray the character as weak and submissive. Arthur learns to decide what he wants in life through Janet’s direct and forthright manner in dealing with issues head-on. By the end of the play, Arthur might now have grown fully as an active member of the relationship. Campbell appropriately sets the character on a journey to discover what he wants out of his life and where he wants to go in the remaining time he has left.
Johnathan Sousa invests a soupçon dash of the absurd in his work as the mysterious Simon. When invited to dinner at the house, he appears a tad underdressed (thanks to Joyce Padua’s selection of the worn looking black Nirvana t-shirt design underneath his ‘wrinkled suit’). As the conversation over dinner and dessert continues, something about Simon’s conversation starter remains peculiarly offbeat. Sousa quietly goes along with that for the time being. There’s an impish grin on his face with a cock of his head to show that he is about to take a commanding presence over the events that follow.
It is in the second act where the audience sees another side of Simon as the character breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience. It becomes an eye-opener, to say the least.
And when Sousa does this, it does defy a sensible explanation.
But it certainly makes for good theatre.
Final Comments: As a 60 + year old who often wonders where things are headed both inwardly and outwardly, ‘Withrow Park’ at least lets me know that life still offers things to do that are out of the ordinary routine.
Sometimes we must visit the odd and the peculiar in that uncertainty of life to have those AHA moments about who we are as we continue to grow in this short life we live. That doesn’t stop at any given age.
'Withrow Park' is most definitely worth a look.
Running time: approximately one hour and 45 minutes.
‘Withrow Park’ runs until December 10 on the Mainstage at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Avenue. For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com or call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827.
WITHROW PARK by Morris Panych
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Assistant Director: Bryn Kennedy
Set Designer: Ken MacDonald
Costume Designer: Joyce Padua
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Sound Designer and Composer: Jacob Lin 林鴻恩
Stage Manager: Sandy Plunkett
Apprentice Stage Manager: Emily Cornelius
The Cast: Benedict Campbell, Corinne Koslo, Nancy Palk, Johnathan Sousa