For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again
by Michel Tremblay
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, March 2006
If you wanted to tell your mom how much you loved her, and how important she'd been to your life, you'd probably think twice about doing it in public: it's pretty difficult to engage in that kind of discourse without sounding, well, like a greeting card, or looking like a Norman Rockwell illustration. Our current fascination with "reality TV" probably has lowered our level of cynicism about such protestations, but even so, if your career were dependent on your reputation for your ability to use language in new, important and authentic ways, you might expect that "I love you, mom" might provoke snickers of tolerant amusement among those who were interested in your work. Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with loving your mom (as long as you keep Oedipus and Tom Lehrer at bay), but finding a way to say it without sounding mawkish, sentimental and "heartwarming" is a pretty daunting challenge.
Probably almost no one who's seen Michel Tremblay's "valentine to his mother" remembers much about I Remember Mama, the 1948 movie which spun off a long-lived television show, running into the mid-fifties, and as I read the script I wondered if Tremblay had. His strategy for avoiding the sticky sweetness which characterized that show (and into which his play might well have fallen) is to emphasize the theatricality, the artificiality, of the story. The narrator (in this case pretty clearly the author) invites us to contemplate this woman, whom he introduces and with whom he interacts in the way he would have as the child he was when the scenes he's remembering occurred, and we're made vividly aware of the artificiality throughout. The narrator begins by exhaustively (perhaps a bit too exhaustively) giving us a list of the things we won't see on the stage tonight. Inviting those with the widest knowledge of theatre into his confidence, he tells us that "No ghost will come to haunt the battlements of a castle in the kingdom of Denmark where, apparently, something is rotten," that "no one will emerge from a garbage pail to tell an absurd story," etc. (This particular narrator also tells us that no millworker from Dalhousie will tell us to take a break, either.) All this is to show us that the Nana who arrives a moment later, in a rage, is -- like Hamlet and Nagg and all the others he's alluded to -- a theatrical fiction, a universal. "Electra's cousin," he calls her, "Ivanov's sister, Caligula's stepmother."
Claude Giroux's TNB production wisely pushes this a little further. Rather than the empty stage Tremblay calls for, we have an obviously theatrical, and obviously fake, set: a brick wall with what seems melting snow painted on it, an easy chair, a kitchen table and a couple of chairs (oddly, it seems, all this sits outside the brick wall). Stagehands are obvious as the play starts, putting the finishing touches on the set, adjusting the light, and, finally, cueing the music and the lighting change as the play proper begins and the narrator enters up the steps from the audience onto the stage. Equally important in heightening this theatricality are Chris Saad's wonderful lighting changes -- punctuating all the moments when the fantasy ends and the narrator is alone again, for example, or slowly raising this lights on Nana during her monologue about TV drama, to allow the narrator to fade right out of our attention. Mike Doherty's subtle, understated sound design has the same effect, reminding us by fading in during a speech that, after all, we're in a theatre.
All this underscores Tremblay's point. The narrator -- Tremblay himself, for all intents and purposes -- became a playwright, was able to imagine characters and embody them in language, in large part because his mother loomed so large in his life. Ironically, though, his mother did not live to see his success. "She never saw the wings of a theatre," he says, "she never attended a rehearsal. . . . It's one of the greatest regrets in my life." In For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, Tremblay not only offers us his memory of that mother, he offers us, and himself, the opportunity to imagine him making that up to her. Where the truth of memory gives way to the fantasy of what he would have done if he could is not clear: we can't tell if he really did make the speech about how she was responsible for his success, but we do know for sure that he didn't offer her a showy, theatrical exit instead of the painful death she actually experienced. And we do know that all that we see is theatre. Perhaps, after all, he exaggerates as much as she did.
The script obviously offers a company a couple of pretty plummy roles. It was a relief to see Marshall Button, as the narrator, released -- for all but one fleeting moment, that allusion to Lucien added in his prologue -- from the trap he's built for himself as that apparently immortal millworker, and given a chance to stretch himself a bit into a different and wider role, and show us some of the other talents of timing and movement that make him an interesting and effective stage performer. If his narrator was a little declamatory and a bit unsubtle, it seems clear that this was part of the basic conception of the production: to remind us at every turn that this is about the theatre, and about a certain kind of theatre, Tremblay's kind, where emotions are obvious and explicit and characters are exaggerated.
The show, of course, is built around the role of Nana, however, and like Tosca or Hello, Dolly, rises or falls according as the actor playing that role can fascinate and amuse and surprise us for an hour and a half. Patrician Yeatman, who's played the role a couple of times before, gives us a solid, believable Nana -- her walk, the way she sits, the volubility and flow of the language, the physicality of her relationship with her son, and most of all the step-by-step aging (she is, in my view, most effective as the dying Nana of the last scene). She's assisted by wonderful costumes, bringing the look of the fifties in Quebec to vivid life, but she inhabits them with commitment and focus. She, like Button, takes the play as rather more declamatory than I expected, and I was surprised to find her so often talking directly to us rather than to her son -- at one point, after all, he says that she would talk "all the while keeping an eye on the person she was talking to, watching for their reactions." The production chose to have her watching us for our reactions. I'm not sure that's not part of the reason that occasionally they missed laughs they should have had -- at a couple of points where she's being particularly funny, and the narrator notes it, the actual Playhouse audience didn't laugh much on opening night, which suggested to me that maybe we were being distanced a little more from the relationship than we should have been.
All this comes together in the final scene, as Nana is ushered out in the most theatrical way of all, in the basket from which the gods descend in the classic deus ex machina of Greek tragedy. The TNB basket, however, does not fly (one guesses this is because the mechanisms to make it fly aren't available in all the places TNB tours to), nor is it fitted out with the angel wings Tremblay wanted. The flying exit is done by back projection, as is the vision of Saskatchewan the narrator shows her. Whether making Nana's exit more obviously theatrical, and just slightly tacky, is the best choice or not, I'm not sure, but it's consistent with the TNB approach to the script.
And that TNB approach, as defined by new director Claude Giroux, gives us an experience of seeing Nana again for the first time that's memorable, and often moving.