by Mary-Colin Chisholm
Theatre New Brunswick
About three centuries ago, during one of the times the plague was raging in London, a package of cloth arrived in an isolated little village in the north Midlands called Eyam. It infected the village with the plague. To this day, Eyam is full of memorials to the heroism with which its people faced this disaster. I thought of this Friday night watching Theatre New Brunswick's production of Safe Haven, a play about the arrival of AIDS, our modern plague, in a small coastal settlement in Nova Scotia.
People find it hard to think about, and understand, large-scale disasters like plagues. We need to know about individuals. We need the particulars of their lives and relationships in order to come to any useful knowledge. Mary-Colin Chisholm, who wrote Safe Haven for Nova Scotia's Mulgrave Road Co-Op Theatre, offers us one way to come to some understanding of this modern plague.
The story is simple: Cassie comes home from Halifax to tell Kevin that she has discovered her ex-husband had the virus which leads to AIDs, that she herself has tested HIV-positive, and that she may have inadvertently infected him on a previous visit. Everything in the play is a consequence of this central action. However (and surprisingly, perhaps), Safe Haven is not depressing; indeed, it is a warm and funny script about four characters exhibiting their courage with self-deprecating humor and irony.
The production has many of the qualities I associate with the Mulgrave Road company: a simple, elegant set (this one's lovely as well) which can serve as a number of different locations, neat and effective transitions between scenes, and a concern for the everyday lives and language of people we might know. The overall design, by John Ferguson, and the lighting, by Kevin Fraser, are extremely effective in creating the soft, unhurried rhythm of the production. I especially admired the birch trees at the sides of the stage, through which the characters can take leisurely walks, and the slanting moonlight across the stage, connecting two scenes, at the end of the first act.
The play takes place in the kitchen of the house in which Cassie was raised as a foster child by her aunt Fay and her husband, who has died recently. The kitchen sits, without walls, against an effectively-lit backdrop of hills and lakes which becomes almost a fifth character in the play. This is especially true when the lighting creates a sunset in which we can almost feel the breeze, a central image in the play. The half of the stage opposite the kitchen serves as a dozen different locations -- the shoreline, a doctor's office, or the cabin of the fourth character in the play, Hannah, Cassie's childhood friend and the village doctor.
The challenge for the four actors is that the play is primarily one of discovery, and thus much explanation is needed. The leisurely, contemplative exposition, especially in the first few scenes, is lightened by humor; indeed, I've never see a play about a subject as serious and potentially depressing as AIDS that had so many good funny lines, and all four actors handle them well. I particularly remember Robin Craig, as Hannah, snapping off a description of her chair-chewing dog: "this is no pet, this is the Antichrist in a flea collar," and Geoffrey Bowes' grimace when Fay announces to Kevin that she's got some shirts of her dead husband's she's been meaning to give him.
Still, they don't always triumph. The explanation isn't invariably engrossing. For instance, the play delivers an awful lot of its load of information by having Fay talk to herself. We discover late in the play that she's really talking, out of habit, to her late husband, but it's still a difficult convention to carry off. Marion Gilsenan gives it a good try, varying her pace and shaping the long monologues. Still, it's hard not to notice in many of these cases that the speech or the scene is really there so that we can come to know and care about these people, and understand their backgrounds -- rather than for an immediate dramatic purpose. They're talking for us, not for each other.
And, oddly (given the overall excellence of the way director Stewart Arnott uses the stage), some of these extended conversations seemed awkwardly directed or blocked. For example, I noticed Robin Craig, as Hannah, using the same "toss a line over your shoulder" movement two or three times successively, because Jennifer Overton, as Cassie, stayed behind her at the kitchen counter. These are not important matters, except when a play depends as intensely as this one does on drawing us into the world of its characters.
This is not to suggest that it fails to do this, however. On balance, the play is an engrossing and entertaining one. If it has lost some delicacy in being translated from the workshop to the main stage, it has also gained some power. If its view of the world seems a little optimistic, and more than a little sentimental about the value of the rural coast of Nova Scotia as a "safe haven" against the rough dangers of the world outside, that's a view many Maritimers have a good deal of sympathy with. If it's a play which perhaps fails to cut as deep into the reality of AIDS as we might think necessary, it remains one which offers us a vision of a kind of courage like those villagers in Eyam, cutting themselves off from their neighbours so as not to spread the plague, facing their deaths with dignity, and with love for each other.
After all, as Cassie points out, and as the play makes clear, we're all in the same boat.