At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Written by Anusree Roy
Directed by Brendan Healy
Lighting by André du Toit
Composer and sound designer, Richard Feren
Cast: Shelly Antony
Anusree Roy looks at the subject of mental illness in which one family member wants to ignore it and another reluctantly must face it. Roy deals with thorny issues regarding mental illness in her play which is funny, full of concern and compassion, but there are too many unanswered questions and the play should be given another pass to solve the problems. There are wonderful performances by the cast in an intriguing production of director Brendan Healy.
The Story. Dilpreet is a widower. He has been raising his two daughters for years: Jasmeet, is a teenager who is socially active in high school. Simran is her older sister who has been studying to write her LSAT tests in the hopes of being accepted to Osgood Law School. What is mainly occupying their thoughts and time is that in a few weeks Dilpreet will open his clothing store in the East Indian section of Gerrard Street East in Toronto. He expects his daughters to help but he goes easy on Simran. She is under stress. She has suffered from debilitating headaches in the past and bright light seem to cause them, so as a matter of course, the lights are dimmed for her.
It’s obvious that Simran is not just suffering from stress. Jasmeet tends not to think it’s anything more serious than extreme studying and the tension of wanting desperately to get into law school. Her father Dilpreet knows better. His late wife suffered from metal illness. Simran needs help but refuses it. Matters come to a head and everyone must face the reality of what is happening to Simran.
The Production. It’s not clear from the program who has designed the set. Samantha Brown is listed as the Associate Set Designer, which would suggest there should be a set designer. In any case great swaths of beautiful silks hang down from the flies. There are mannequins wearing South Asian garb that should entice customers. A large counter is up stage. That counter is Dilpreet’s domain. Sugith Varughese plays Dilpreet with pride, confidence and concern for his daughter Simran. He also frets about the opening and wants everything to be perfect, of course.
Playwright, Anusree Roy has written Dilpreet’s speech as quirky, not quite proper English. Dilpreet has wonderful turns of phrases just ‘off-kilter’ from what the phrase should really be. (One can be forgiven if one thinks of Mr. Kim in Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, also a father with a quirky sense of English). Sugith Varughese delivers that dialogue with such seriousness that every joke lands without actually making fun of the character.
The dynamic of that family is soon quite clear. While Dilpreet loves both daughters he thinks Jasmeet is stupid, only thinks about her looks and has an empty brain, . She loves fashion, social media, socializing and planning for the prom. All Dilpreet’s hopes and dreams are for Simran getting into law school and becoming the best “human lawyer in the country.” For him she has the brains of the two sisters. She actually wants to work on humanitarian causes but in Dilpreet’s expression it comes out ‘human lawyer.’ He accommodates Simran and her issues and hesitates to get her proper medical help in this latest instance, until he has no choice. In terms of the title, Jasmeet would be ‘Little Pretty’ and Simran would be ‘The Exceptional.’
While he praises Simran, he never hesitates to run down Jasmeet. Perhaps it’s the confidence of youth, or that Jasmeet knows she is smart and has common sense, because the way Shruti Kothari plays Jasmeet is with confidence and authority. Jasmeet has a good head on her shoulders and good business sense. Kothari plays Jasmeet as aware, full of chutzpah and a way of taking over with authority and getting things done. Shruti Kothari gives a lovely performance as Jasmeet.
Farah Merani plays the difficult part of Simran, difficult because her issues must be revealed slowly and not in a flash. If it’s too obvious for the audience that something is wrong with her and her father and sister can’t see it, it makes them look like they are in denial. Jasmeet thinks she is just suffering from stress. Dilpreet does know Simran has issues but tries to treat her with kid gloves. We can believe initially that Simran is stressed, because of the way Farah Merani plays her; anxious, distracted and pre-occupied. But as the play unfolds there are the headaches and other manifestations that all is not right here.
As Iyar, Jasmeet’s boyfriend, Shelly Antony is all smiles and charm. He has an easy exuberance and honest sense of respect for Dilpreet.
Director Brandan Healy brings his keen eye to the details of each character and creates a family dynamic that is true. He also guides each actor to realize the full potential of their characters. When Simran is having moments of diminished mental capacity André du Toit’s lighting changes. We are aware of her slow spiral downward by these more frequent light changes.
Comment. Anusree Roy’s plays deal with stories focusing on South Asian characters. Little Pretty and the Exceptional is the first of her plays set exclusively in Toronto. But by making her plays focus on South Asian characters Roy of course is making a universal statement. In terms of Little Pretty and the Exceptional we can all identify with the family dynamic: a father trying his best to raise two daughters on his own and plan a business; knowing a family secret and hiding it; being wounded by the past and hoping for a brighter future; feeling love for family. Her sense of character and language are very strong.
I do have some concerns. Jasmeet was six when her mother left the family and knew what happened to her. But Jasmeet’s opinions of her mother are intensely less than kind. Dilpreet knows the truth about his wife and yet the conversation to set Jameet straight about what rely happened doesn’t seem to have taken place. I think that lapse weakens the play.
While I can appreciate that Dilpreet is pre-occupied with the opening of his new store and he is trying to be as supportive towards Simran as he can, he takes an awfully long time to recognize she needs help, considering he has witnessed this behaviour before.
Anusree Roy is a wonderful, thoughtful writer who has opened up new worlds and stories for Canadian audiences. I think Little Pretty and the Exceptional can be an exceptional play with another re-write and re-examining some situations.
Factory Theatre Presents:
Opened: April 6, 2017.
Closes: April 30, 2017.
Characters: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.