By Lori Bosworth
It’s post-WWII Vancouver and survivors of the war scramble to make a living in Director Stan Douglas’s Helen Lawrence, which opened at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto on October 16, 2014. Canadian Stage’s production breaks new ground by offering a film-noir-style play, which is also a film as the actors’ images are projected on to a transparent screen.
The female protagonist, Helen Lawrence, is on the run from her past in Los Angeles, where her husband has been murdered and where she has spent a stint in a mental institution. She travels by train to a seedy Vancouver hotel, where many misfits from the war congregate, trying to make a buck in the politically-corrupt, western Canadian city. There is the soldier, dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who is too emotionally and physically bankrupt to support his wife; the Asian prostitute whose clients include the upper ranks of the Vancouver Police Department; an African Canadian running an illicit beer garden; a woman who does not know whether her husband survived WWII and an orphaned tomboy, Julie, who is placed in the care of the sketchy hotel manager after her father dies in the war. Their narratives merge together to underscore the physical and emotional destruction of war and humanity’s desire to overcome the most difficult of circumstances through any possible means.
Written by Chris Haddock from a story by Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas, Helen Lawrence captivates not only via its state-of-the-art technology, but through its sharp and emotionally-charged dialogue between several of the characters. The storyline of Mary and Buddy Black is particularly riveting while Julie’s craving for the love and attention of Helen Lawrence in a confused maternal/romantic way, symbolizes the misplacement and lack of identity of all in her community.
And then there is the stage itself. While actors perform on the blue-screen enclosed stage, the actors’ images are projected on to a transparent screen. Helen Lawrence is clearly a work of meta theatre since camerapersons filming the actors are in full view of the audience. Initially, simultaneously watching the screen and the actors performing behind it proved to be a challenge, but I soon decided to watch the screen almost exclusively in order to observe the actors’ facial expressions.
The recorded music composed by John Gzowski featuring a delightfully bluesy horn section contributed greatly to the film noir feel, as did the black and white screen images. Gzowski’s authentic 1940s’ sound effects includes buzzers and abrasive bells from the ringing of old rotary telephones. Computer-generated 3D images of Vancouver’s skyline are blended with the actors’ images to create a realistic backdrop.
Nancy Bryant’s well-researched costumes include women’s tailored tweed suits, mid-calf-length dresses with shoulder pads, velvet berets, dashing fedoras and wide-legged pants. Nicholas Lea as the elusive Percy evokes a thinner Jackie Gleason in his Honeymooner days.
With a strong cast overall, there are still some standouts. As Julie/Joe, the bi-curious tomboy, Haley McGee captures the mischievousness and wide-eyed wonder of an on-the-cusp-of-puberty teen. McGee provides many of the play’s much-needed humour as she intrudes into other people’s affairs. Emily Piggford as the lady-of-the-evening Rose, displays a frail vulnerability as she realizes she had been stood up by a client. But the interactions between the dynamic Crystal Balint and Allan Louis as Mary and Buddy Black respectively are tense and offer some of the most heightened drama in the play.
For an evening of an old-fashioned crime drama, updated with a 21st century delivery, Helen Lawrence is the ticket.
Helen Lawrence is being performed at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre from October 12 to November 2, 2014. Tickets are $30-$99 and may be purchased online, by calling 416-368-3110 or at the box office.