August, An Afternoon in the Country
August, an Afternoon in the Country is a gem of French Canadian Gothic. Like a good Faulkner piece, the horror is not an imaginary monster, but four generations of a family cracking under the weight of impoverished circumstances and clashing personalities. Like a Jenga stack one wayward piece away from a mess, it doesn’t take much to disrupt the fragile balance.
Set entirely on the verandah of their shabby farmhouse, things go awry when self-absorbed, 50-something sister-in-law Monique (Danette MacKay) arrives from the city to celebrate her upwardly mobile marriage plans. Her fiancé is planning to take her on an Alaskan cruise ship with two swimming pools — something she has no interest in. Worse, Mr. Pocket Personality hasn’t quite gotten over the death of his first wife, nor is he as benign as his preppy polo shirts and pressed slacks imply. But, Monique’s situation seems lucky next to that of her sister-in-law Jeanne (Pauline Little) and niece Louise (Eleanor Noble). Jeanne is overburdened and frazzled, almost to the point of hysterical collapse. She resists Monique’s invitations to take a few days away. Jeanne’s daughter Louise is unhappily married to a boorish farmhand with her sights set on leaving. At the ends of the generation spectrum are 86 year-old ornery matriarch Paulette (Clare Coulter) and Louise’s ambitious 19-year-old daughter Josée (Arielle Palik) who is leaving for college pronto.
Playwright Jean-Marc Dalpé may be Franco-Ontarian, but the play has a distinct Quebec pure laine feel. Monique swans about in heels and low cut tops, doling out advice learned from the pages of glossy women’s magazines, a warts-and-all portrait of a country girl who spent 25 years in the city, desperate to urbanize. Paulette might as well have wandered in from a Michel Tremblay production. Jeanne sags under the weight of her life, but plays the guilt card like a pro. Even the darker circumstances that drive the play could easily be overheard as whispered gossip in a Tim’s north of Laval. Louise seems a little young to have a 19-year-old daughter. Allusions are made to a conflict over the property’s no-longer-profitable sugar shack and the neighborhood golf course.
The relationships between the characters are visceral, sketched out in their silences and disconnections. The characters hear each other’s words, never their feelings. The mother-daughter relationship between Jeanne and Louise, the heart of the play, is frighteningly grey, and their ultimate showdown doesn’t even have them on stage simultaneously. Yet their respective situations — the failing health of those surrounding Jeanne and the mismatch of Louise’s tense marriage — are vivid, real, and understandably scarred.
Although dark, the play is buoyed by humor and outstanding production values. The acting is superb. The multi-layered dialogue and set are rich with symbolism. Louise crunches an apple while her cuckolded husband shows off an oversized snake. The dilapidated house doubles for the family itself.
That said, the play is not without flaws. Warning of a mini spoiler alert ahead: despite fine acting, the characters of Paulette and Josée served mostly as comic relief. Paulette is representative of the degenerating past and histrionic Josée the inevitable future. They seemed too incidental, too symbolic to the thrust of the action. The ambiguous ownership of the house and its future, integral to the story, only becomes apparent in the final quarter of the play, a shade too late. Finally, I didn’t see enough evidence of violence in the aftermath of the final argument. Although I loved the nod to Greek drama by setting the worst offstage, somehow it didn’t seem quite so bad once the characters returned.
On balance, the production is masterful, a booming start to the Centaur’s season. While pressing on familiar buttons of intergenerational conflicts and thwarted ambitions, the play offers a hyper-real portrait of a dysfunctional family at its limits in a changing rural Quebec. ■
August, An Afternoon in the Country is on at Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier) to Oct. 28.