For a man, Noël Coward knew how to flesh out a female character. You could, arguably, lump the British playwright, who wrote more than 50 plays in his lifetime, in the same category as Louisa May Alcott or Jane Austen.
Coward’s women are complex. They’re funny, verbose, quiet, reasonable, sometimes foppish, grumpy, and often forces to be reckoned with.
That’s no more apparent than in one of the last plays Coward wrote, Waiting in the Wings, which is currently on the stage at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre.
The women at the heart of this play hold your attention, which is considerable since Waiting in the Wings is more than two hours long and is told in three acts, with two intermissions.
Although perhaps a little dated to today’s standards of feminism, Coward’s women hold weight (and I’m not making a jab at the emotional eater and bustled figure of Almina Clare, played here by Sue Gairns).
These down-on-their luck retired actresses, who live in the charity home, the Wings, circa 1960 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (standing in for Bourne End, England), have complex lives and the actresses portraying them give them life, warts and all.
The residents of the Wings don’t just reminisce about their long, lost careers, they experience emotion on how life has positioned them in the present.
We’re flies on the wall watching the women as they laugh, cry, complain and struggle with the mundane and excitement of their situation. There are also a few plot devices to keep the story moving along.
The play starts with the residents and their liaison Perry Lascoe (Rob Hillier), fighting the home’s committee to get a new solarium. This theme rears its head throughout the play. But what is really at the forefront is the characters’ own stories, starting with the long simmering feud between Lotta Brainbridge (Janet Anderson) and May Davenport (Patty Garrett).
We’re not told what caused the feud until the second act, which is a good thing as it allows us to get to know these characters better.
Lotta, the more gentler of the two, is resigned to live in the house after her companion and maid Dora gets engaged to be married. Furious frowner May is embittered about Lotta’s arrival, but her icy surface starts to melt as the play moves along and we find out what really got her goat.
The secondary characters, including the other residents of the Wings and the home’s manager, former lieutenant Sylvia “Archie” Archibald (Bev Steeves), all have their own idiosyncrasies.
Besides soft spoken Almina, all smiles, songs and tears, there’s Bonita Belgrave (Cara Nunn, a triple threat as she designed and decorated the impressive set), here portrayed as the southern belle of reason who cures all woes with a glass of bourbon.
Cora Clarke (Roxanne Ricard) is the snippety, fashionable, golden voiced member of the bunch who really does not want to be in the home.
Deirdre O’Malley (Jean Given) is the Irish doom sayer, all fire and brimstone, entertaining us with her jig right to the very end.
And poor Sarita Myrtle (Susan Johnson) is in the throes of dementia, still believing she is on the stage and entranced by fire, which, you can imagine, does not end up well.
You come to care for these women, even when they are bickering and being unreasonable.
Thickening the plot is the arrival of Perry’s “friend” Zelda Fenwick (Tanya Laing Gahr), who turns out to be a reporter and wants to do a gossipy feature on the women in the Wings. She adds to the snark factor, but even her wily ways turn up roses in the end.
Besides Perry, a few other men drop in to say hello. There’s giddy Osgood Meeker (Dave Sayer) who visits Miss Carrington, the eldest resident of the home whom we never meet, and Dr. Jevons (John Lomas) who comes to take one of the residents away.
Then there’s the long, lost relative Alan Bennet (Brent Raymond), whose arrival in Act 3 is a surprise to one of the residents, but, like most of the other men, his story serves as a backdrop, sort of an afterthought.
I think this relationship could have been served a little better, instead of a fly-by sort of treatment. But then again, I think Coward wanted to serve all the women in this story – and not just focus on one.
It takes very special women to pull this off as the cast do in this play. They are truly all fantastic, fleshing out these characters with all the physical and internal emotion needed. Congratulations must also go to their director Jennifer Goodsell who ekes out the very best in them.
Costume designer Joan Sasges and her crew must also be commended. The vintage dresses and cardigan/pant suits are part Mad Men, part Guys and Dolls, appropriate for the ages of the elderly residents and the staff who work at the home.
Don’t wait, enter the Wings now while you can.
Waiting in the Wings continues at the Powerhouse Theatre for a matinée today and Saturday, March 5 at 2 p.m. and evening shows Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, ticketseller.ca.
– Kristin Froneman is the arts-emtetainment editor at the Vernon Morning Star.