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'Paint Me This House of Love' by Chelsea Woolley

Now onstage in the Extraspace at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre

Cylla von Tiedemann. Foreground: Jessica B. Hill Background: Jeremiah Sparks

Joe Szekeres

An unforgettable night at the theatre. Mike Payette robustly directs Chelsea Woolley’s story of vulnerable human emotions that resoundingly clash with increasing dramatic tension.

Twenty-five-year-old divorced, office administrator, Cecilia (Jessica B. Hill) has purchased a home sorely needing repairs and a good paint job. She finally meets her father, Jules (Jeremiah Sparks) after a twenty-five-year estrangement. Over coffee, the two of them try to reconcile their differences. They are excited to be back together again like this, but Cecilia wants to take things slowly with her father. She allows him to stay at her home. He arrives back at the house after being out one day to begin painting the walls of his daughter’s house.

We then hear a series of rather amusing phone messages Cecilia’s mother, Rhondi, has left for her daughter.
Cecilia converses with her mother, Rhondi (Tanja Jacobs) about her father and the situation that led her parents to divorce. Rhondi tries to convince Cecilia to ensure the extra room in the house is rented to someone.

As the play progresses, conflicts about distant memories and past promises made begin to haunt the three characters.

Director Mike Payette has assembled an extraordinary group of artists that provide an unforgettable night at the theatre. Ken MacDonald’s dishevelled and somewhat claustrophobic set design of Cecilia’s (what was she thinking?) purchase aptly reflects her chaotic state of mind. Tim Rodrigues’ shadowy light design underscores the mystery of what went wrong in this family. Julia Surich’s not-so-fancy costume designs for these three characters were a nice touch. This family is not trailer trash people, but they’re also not high-class individuals known for their mannerly decorum either. They’re matter-of-fact and to-the-point real working-class people who “are looking for love [and] who can’t figure out the formula” as the playwright states in her programme note.

These characters become real people thanks to Payette’s robust direction of vulnerable human emotions that resoundingly clash with increasing dramatic tension. Playwright Chelsea Woolley’s script bristles with staccato and fragmented sentences which powerfully reflect the twenty-first-century culture in which we now live. Woolley just gets our current culture and language indicate no real connecting conversations with others anymore. Instead, words and thoughts are tersely expressed. Sometimes another person may finish a thought for someone whether correctly or incorrectly.

And what a stellar ensemble production of actors. They deliver carefully balanced and nuanced performances of layered depth. Periodically I have used the term ‘masterclass in acting’ when the play warrants it.

‘Paint Me This House of Love’ does just that.

Jessica B. Hill is a charismatic performer, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her visibly angry Cecilia is firmly grounded in the truth of fractured vulnerability exacerbated by her polar opposing personalities of parents who have never recovered from their own psychological demons. Hills’ viscerally guttural reaction to Jules in the second act after he leaves is worth the price of a ticket alone.

There’s a fascination and charm about Jeremiah Sparks’ performance as Jules. He is a man who wants and desires to make amends with his daughter, and Sparks does everything he can in the first half of the play to prove he repents his errors as a father. When the truth emerges about Jules, there’s a lot to decipher about him and his responsibilities in the choices he made. The concluding tableau moment between Hill and Sparks remains riveting.

Tanja Jacobs becomes deliciously savage as Cecilia’s saucy and potty mouth of a four-time married mother who only wants the best for her adult daughter. Yet that same vulnerability within Cecilia exists in Rhondi. This occurs in the second-act conversation between the ex-husband and ex-wife. Jacobs’ listening and reactions are artistry gold.

One exceptional moment takes place well downstage on the steps (in Rhondi’s apartment stairwell). This scene between Jacobs and Hill is emotionally touching to watch and hear the conversation between the two. Cecilia helps to shave her mother’s legs as Rhondi’s diabetes makes it extremely difficult to do so. What is extremely poignant about this scene is the precise care Hill takes in shaving and then drying Jacobs’ legs. Such compassion in the looks, the glances and the listening between the two of them. This is exactly what excellent theatre is all about.

‘Paint Me This House of Love’ is an absolute must-see. It remains a masterclass in acting that sets the bar high.

Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.

‘Paint Me This House of Love’ runs to May 7 in the Extraspace at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit or call (416) 531-1827.

‘Paint Me This House of Love’ by Chelsea Woolley
Director: Mike Payette
Assistant Director: Carolyn Fe
Set Design: Ken MacDonald
Costume Design: Julia Surich
Lighting Design: Tim Rodrigues
Sound Design: John Gzowski
Stage Manager: Emilie Aubin

Performers: Jessica B. Hill, Tanja Jacobs, Jeremiah Sparks

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