Arts

Guests in show

John Sproule and Davina Stewart populate an entire party in Later Life

A.R. Gurney’s Later Life takes place in real time during a Boston
cocktail party as a man named Austin (David Ley) strikes up a conversation
with a woman named Ruth (Michele Brown), who coyly informs him that
they’ve met before. Austin attempts to recollect precisely where their
paths once crossed, but that’s not the only thing they spend the next
90 minutes talking about: they share their views on love, the changing Boston
landscape and the human capacity (and incapacity) for change. It’s a
lovely, literate two-hander, full of Gurney’s usual skillful mixture of
wry humour and middle-aged regret—or at least it would be if it
didn’t get constantly interrupted by a whole parade of colourful
supporting characters, 10 of them to be precise, all played by Davina Stewart
and John Sproule. “Working with a company with resident actors [like
Shadow Theatre],” Sproule says, “I usually don’t get to
play multiple parts—typically I get the lead, not the wacky secondary
roles. And with the characters in Later Life, you’ve got to give the
audience so much information about them in such a short space of time. Davina
knows how to do that from doing Die-Nasty, but I’m more used to doing
shows where I have to hold back information about my character and slowly
leak it out over the course of two hours. Here, you have two minutes.”
In Later Life, Sproule’s roles range from the computer-obsessed Duane
to the cigarette-obsessed Jim. He and Stewart turn up twice in
husband-and-wife combinations: the bickering Roy and Marion (he wants to move
to Florida, close to all the golf courses, while she’d like to stay
put, close to her grandchildren) and Ted and Esther McAlister, a
new-to-Boston Southern couple who initially seem hopelessly gauche and
tactless (“We met several Jewish people—they’re all so
frank!”) but who soon reveal themselves to have a delightfully open
attitude toward new experiences. And Stewart gets to do a few solo turns
herself—she’s an interfering Long Islander named Nancy as well as
Sally, the hostess who’s assembled all these mismatched guests in the
first place. “There’s that initial moment where the characters
all seem very stereotypical,” Stewart says. “But that’s
something we all do when we meet people at a party or run into them on the
street—you automatically put them into some category or label them as
some kind of ‘type.’ But there is more to all of them; they have
to be real. They can’t just be clown turns. That Southern couple, the
McAlisters, are a great example of that—when they first arrive, you
think, ‘Oh, God, these loud Americans.’ But they make these great
choices about living life, and they’re the couple that Ruth is able to
be the most honest with and really open up and reveal her secrets to.”
“It’s very clever,” Sproule says. “Gurney creates
this sort of automatic suspense in the audience of ‘Who’s coming
on next?’” “And what colour will their hair be?”
jokes Stewart. “Some of them came so easily to us,” Sproule says,
“and you think, ‘Oh, that’s just great.’ But some are
just such a struggle….” “Well,” Stewart says, “the
Varscona is such an intimate space that it’s tricky. They all have to
be different, but they all have to feel real. It can’t be about
prosthetic noses and that kind of thing.” She turns to Sproule.
“Don’t you find it weird playing five characters each instead of
three? Usually it’s three. That’s what they do at Second City,
and most improv troupes, for that matter—you show them three characters
with three voices. And with a play like this, where you’re playing
five, once you’ve done your high voice, your low voice and your medium
voice, you wonder, ‘God, what else have I got left?’” An
added challenge for both actors was simply decoding all the insider
references to Boston neighbourhoods and Boston culture Gurney has strewn
throughout the dialogue. Luckily, transplanted Bostonian Jim DeFelice was
always close at hand to explain the nuances underlying Gurney’s
allusions to Brandeis University, the Union Oyster House, the Gardner Museum
and riding the Blue Line instead of the Red Line to work. “The whole
city of Boston was going through change as well when Gurney was writing the
play [in 1993],” Stewart says. “The whole harbour area that
figures in the play was being redeveloped and the city was becoming more
vibrant as well—at least, that’s my interpretation. Austin even
says, after Marion leaves after talking about the beautiful view of the
harbour, ‘That view may change.’ And he doesn’t sound all
that excited about it.” The tragedy of the play, in fact, is that
Austin’s personality is less attuned to the changing harbourfront than
it is to the Gardner Museum, the Boston landmark which has stayed essentially
the same since its founder’s death in 1924. “Gurney has said that
one of the reasons he wanted two actors to play all the parts,” Sproule
says, “is because of the way it relates to the play’s theme of
the ability to change. You’ve got the central couple whose difficulty
is making a change in their lives, and circling around them are these two
other actors who are changing all the time. It’s nice to have that kind
of arc to play—an overall reason for why you’re constantly
switching roles. Plus, it’s just fun to do, to play dressup for 90
minutes.” Stewart nods enthusiastically. “The Tickle Trunk opens
up.” V Later Life Directed by John Hudson • Starring David Ley,
Michele Brown, Davina Stewart and John Sproule • Varscona Theatre •
Apr 22-May 9 • 454-5564

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