Sweet Bird of Youth

Friend of My Youth plus Book of the Dead

When Cynthia Ozick writes, in her famous book-jacket blurb, that Alice Munro is "our Chekhov," she doesn't mean Munro's work will translate easily to the stage. In fact, I think she means almost the opposite: Munro has a patient, unenergetic, deliberately bland style that nevertheless leaves a trail of living characters, the way Chekhov's prose does. The idea of staging one of her stories without a single edit (as Word for Word likes to do) seems insane. Munro herself has described her stories as "houses to walk around in," meaning they're not linear, punchy, or fast -- they're better suited to the solitary reader than a group of people shifting impatiently in their seats. And yet Friend of My Youth, Word for Word's current show at the Magic, works seductively well.

Actually, the play is about a friend of the narrator's mother's youth, which means the company has to navigate two levels of storytelling. The narrator (Delia MacDougall) comes onstage describing a dream about her mom. "She died when I was in my early 20s and she in her early 50s," she says, and we get to see the mother at various ages, blond and smiling, elegantly dressed, and, in her older manifestation, holding a hatbox with a palsied, trembling arm. After this somewhat pretentiously narrated opening, the show concentrates on the younger mother, who goes to live on a farm with a family of Cameronians (strict Presbyterians) in the Ottawa Valley, and teach at a nearby school. "It was not a valley at all, if by that you mean a cleft between hills; it was a mixture of flat fields and low rocks and heavy bush and little lakes -- a scrambled, disarranged sort of country with no easy harmony about it, not yielding readily to any description." The sentence could also describe Munro's writing.

The mom lives with two sisters, Flora and Ellie Grieves, who own the school. A husband, Robert Deal, lives with Ellie on one side of the partitioned house. Why is it partitioned? Because Robert and Ellie want a baby, says the narrator. But the austere, gaslit farmhouse also has a scandalous past: Robert was originally Flora's fiance. But he got Ellie pregnant, and married her instead. They divided the house in expectation of the baby, which was stillborn; an ensuing series of stillbirths and miscarriages leaves the house partitioned for no practical reason.

Ellie, by the time the mother arrives, is bitter and wrecked, but Flora has a "whirling dervish" energy in spite of the insult she's had to live with for years. Soon Ellie develops cancer, and a brassy nurse named Audrey Atkinson shows up in a car, modern clothes, and makeup to ease her decline. Audrey's a liberated woman for the era -- circa 1930 -- and upsets the small Canadian town, especially after Ellie dies. The story is deliberately meandering, but Margo Hall's production stakes key moments of it to keep the audience from drifting, and the director picks apart the narrative's layers with skillful transitions and strong, upfront introductions of the characters. Sometimes the material wanders too much, but the gentle control Hall uses to steer such an unwieldy piece of work is impressive.

What happens to the young mom on the farm reflects back, finally, on the relationship between mother and narrator, who turns out to be a writer like Alice Munro. The actual events aren't even as important as what the mother remembers, and how she remembers it. The production here makes gentle fun of her memory by turning Robert Deal (Simon Vance) into a volitionless, almost wordless young Scots-accented stud. The narrator finds him mysterious and imagines a torrid, red-lit version of the story when she tries to write her first novel. This is in revolt against her mother's piety, which ignores Robert's virility and holds up Flora as a paragon of forgiveness and endurance. They're both wrong; but "the odd thing," says the narrator, "is that my mother's ideas were in line with some progressive notions of her times, and mine echoed the notions that were favored in my time." The show is finally about two generations of women, and the slow accretion of sadness changes the title's meaning.

Scenes near the end that make not-so-gentle fun of the story's two versions work as welcome comic relief. MacDougall comes alive as the narrator: Instead of being reverent and stiff she gets to be bratty and adolescent, bickering with her mom and swooning at the sight of men. Patricia Silver has a nice brittle bearing as the older mother; she flubs the occasional line but you can see the strength her daughter misses. Nancy Shelby has a good skittish intensity as the young mother, dwelling on certain details at the farm but in other ways utterly blind. It's the farm women who give the show its flavor, though. JoAnne Winter and Jeri Lynn Cohen play Ellie and Flora with the appropriate dark prairie austerity: Winter whines and bosses as Ellie; Cohen is brisk and clean and efficient. Stephanie Hunt adds hilarious townswoman sourness and disapproval, in cat's-eye glasses, as Cleta Stapleton; and Susan Harloe's brassy nurse looks and acts like a glamour queen from an earlier age. Cassandra Carpenter's costumes use muted colors to set an old-fashioned tone; James Faerron's set has the same somber, black-wood simplicity, but it forces some players to climb up and down stairs out of the audience's sight when they really should be downstage.

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