by Lynn on March 16, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

A Life Beyond Doubt

At the Sterling Studio Theatre, 163 Sterling Ave. Unit 5. Written by Carol Libman. Directed by lindi g. papoff. Designed by Kendra Terpenning. Lighting by Laura Johnson. Starring: Janna Erichsen, Shel Goldstein, Reva Lawry, Alan Lee, Michael Mann, Mishka Thébaud.

Produced by Tomorrow’s Eve Theatre and plays until March 15. Yes it’s closed. The review is deliberately late.

In muted light an older woman and a middle-aged man stand in their separate spaces looking off in the distance.  The man seems to hold a photograph. The woman holds a newspaper clipping or perhaps it’s a faded letter. The sound of a car crash is heard. The man crumples up the photo and falls to the floor in grieving anguish. The older woman crumples up the clipping/letter and quickly smoothes it out, as if it was precious. Black out.

In another part of the stage a woman is packing up books etc. from the shelves. This is Elizabeth.  An elderly woman sits in a chair behind her. The older woman is Elizabeth’s Mum. Mum wonders about her son Robbie. Exasperated, Elizabeth says that her brother is an adult and is known as Robert and why is she still calling him by his childhood name? There are digs about Elizabeth’s failed marriage. . They snipe at one another. It seems like a conversation that should have/would have happened years before.  Elizabeth never really looks at her mother as she packs up books into boxes. Perhaps chastened a bit, Mum says that Elizabeth did very well the previous day, and that she (Mum) was very proud of her. Elizabeth takes this as the compliment it is. Mum then says that when she was a teen she had to do the same thing for her parents. So far this is mystifying. In a later scene it becomes clear—Mum has died. Elizabeth is clearing out her house to sell it. The funeral was the day before and Elizabeth spoke.

In the next scene we see Kevin, fourteen years old. For some reason he visits Marge Candlish an elderly woman on his paper route. He gives her a gift bag that was left on her porch. She invites him in for coffee and cookies suggesting that some chocolate be added. It’s an expensive bottle of champagne. There is no note in the gift bag and she doesn’t know who it’s from She uncorks it, not too concerned about who left it. She and Kevin chat. We learn she and her late husband raised their grandson while their daughter was away. Mrs. Candlish knows that Kevin’s mother died leaving his father Tom to take care of Kevin and his 18 year old brother. Mrs. Candlish gives Kevin a container of the cookies. He visits her a few times to talk. In Act Two we find out that Mrs. Candlish’s daughter wanted to be a rock star and ran away to follow her dream when she was a teen. A few years later she returned home with a young son; soon got the itch to travel and left the child with her parents. Mrs. Candlish unleashes a fury that she has stayed in that house waiting for her daughter to write or call or return. Kevin is startled. Mrs. Candlish is embarrassed at her outburst.

Then we see Elizabeth, this time with Tom, the father of Kevin and Mickey. She has spent the night and wants to go quickly so as not to be detected by Tom’s sons. Tom and Elizabeth have spent a lot of time together. Tom cares for her. He understands her angst about clearing and selling her mother’s house. He invites her to spend Christmas dinner with them. She agrees.

In a quick scene, when Elizabeth isn’t there, Mickey drops by to tell his father that he is going skiing with his friends and won’t be home for Christmas dinner. He and Kevin banter. They get along and josh each other good naturedly.

Later, over Christmas dinner, Elizabeth bonds with Kevin. She agrees to play a game of hockey with him and his father. Elizabeth makes points for this. In a quiet moment with Tom she is troubled that he has not committed to a serious relationship. He will sleep with her but she wants more. He can’t give it, it seems. She challenges him. She tells him that she has been offered a job in Calgary and is willing to take it if there is nothing here to keep her from going. Tom remains silent or at least is not telling her what she wants to hear. She leaves quickly, upset and knocks into Mickey who has come home early from his skiing trip.

Act II begins with a repetition of the end of Act I, with Elizabeth leaving quickly and banging into Mickey.  I can’t recall if Tom gives any kind of explanation of what happened.  Mickey has a heart to heart with his father about how much he misses his mother; about how he felt inferior to his younger brother because his brother was so smart and he (Mickey) felt left behind because he wasn’t as bright.

Later when Tom is shopping, Elizabeth comes by to return some books that Tom loaned her. She sees Mickey studying/reading at the kitchen table. She tries to engage him in conversation. For some reason he is sullen, monosyllabic in his answers to her and down right rude. Is it because she and his father broke up? How would he really know that since Tom doesn’t seem to reveal anything of himself. Is it because he doesn’t want anyone to replace his mother? Well that’s not the case here, is it? The writing doesn’t explain what’s going on here with Mickey. Elizabeth leaves. When Tom comes back from shopping there is more banter with Mickey and after several minutes Tom sees the books (the table is clear and only after several minutes does he see the books, (sigh). Tom realizes that Elizabeth was there. Mickey is as stingy with his information of what happened as Tom has been before this.

In the very last scene Tom and Kevin come to help Elizabeth pack up her Mum’s house. In a private moment Tom confides what happened to his wife and how he felt responsible. He says that he is damaged goods for Elizabeth. He feels guilty. She deserves better. That he loves her. She replies in a way that is inconclusive which is confusing considering what has just happened. And the play ends.

I generally don’t give this much detail of the story when I do a review. But A Life Beyond Doubt is so unfocused, sprawling, lacking in cohesive storytelling, character development and credible situations that I went into detail to illustrate the points.

A Life Beyond Doubt is a ninety minute (if that), one act play with four characters, ballooned into a 2 hour 30 minute two act play with six characters. Elizabeth and the spirit of her dead mother have that one scene in Act I and you don’t see them interact again until an hour later in Act II. The character of the Mum adds nothing to what is the central story of Tom, his sons and Elizabeth. She might introduce aspects of Elizabeth’s life with her family, but it’s not explored or necessary in this context. Cut the part of the mother. Cut all the scenes where Elizabeth is cleaning out her Mum’s house. Unnecessary.

What is the point of Mrs. Candlish, except to have an outburst in Act II that she has been abandoned by her daughter and had to look after her grandson? We never see him. This is another tangential story of another character who adds nothing to the central plot. Cut Mrs. Candlish and her scenes with Kevin. Playwright Carol Libman says in her program note that she got the inspiration for the second scene by the actual story of a friend who left a holiday present on the wrong porch, but the scene’s connection to this central story is tenuous at best. Cut.

More work is needed on Tom, Mickey and Kevin in clearly establishing their relationships and their inner lives. Just dumping revelation upon revelation in a single scene is not good playwriting. Mickey unloads on his father in Act II in a speech that comes from no where, substantiated by nothing before it. Not good. Tom confiding to Elizabeth about his despair and guilt about the accident that killed his wife, comes from no where substantiated by nothing. We see him in that murky light at the top of the play and collapse on the ground when the sound of the crash is heard and then not a hint of what that means until the last scene in the play? I don’t think so.

Kendra Terpenning’s set of the three playing areas—the Mum’s house, Tom’s and finally Mrs. Candlish–spans the whole side of the theatre.  But arranging the audience in two rows on the other side of the space proves treacherous to manoeuvre.

Director-dramaturg lindi g. papoff does little to clarify the confusion in the text. For some reason she has underscored Tom and Elizabeth’s scenes with annoying accordion music while they are talking to each other. I thought it might be an audio feed from elsewhere that seeped into the sound system. But no, it was deliberate and maddening and totally distracting. The cast were very earnest in their efforts.

That’s all I want to say on the whole enterprise.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reva Lawry March 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I am a proud member of the cast of “A Life Beyond Doubt” and was actually surprised that you, as a theatre critic, had missed the entire concept of the production. It seemed to go right over your head. You commented that Elizabeth never looks at her mother, but she did look and speak to her mom in the entire first scene. What you found “mystifying” not only was explained during the dialogue in the scene, but it also became clear to our audience. Fortunately, you did figure that out. It just took you a little longer than most.

In the next scene, again you became confused as to why Kevin “visits Marge Candlish”. He clearly stated to her that he came to deliver her paper and was the younger brother of Mickey. Marge asked him if he had more papers to deliver and if not, to come in for a drink. Did you not hear all those lines of dialogue? They were in English.

You stated that you “can’t recall” if Tom gives any kind of explanation of what happened … let me refresh your memory. Yes he did. He went into detail of why Elizabeth left in a hurry. Unfortunately, you missed all those lines as well.

You also did not hear any of Mickey’s conversation with his dad where he was very explicit with the reason for not wanting Elizabeth around. He made it clear that he did not want anyone to replace his mother and yet you said, “Well, that’s not the case here, is it?” The writing did explain it, you just didn’t hear it for some unknown reason. Not only don’t you hear the lines, but you mentioned the books on the table that Tom didn’t notice for several minutes. You wrote “the table is clear”, except the table wasn’t clear at all. There were other books on it and various school papers that Mickey was doing his homework on. Mickey even shifted them over when he crossed his legs on the table. You did see that, I hope. (sigh)

In the last scene, it is absolutely intentional that the audience is left wondering whether or not Tom and Elizabeth will stay together. Though Elizabeth makes it clear to Tom that she is willing to give the relationship another chance – when she agrees to let Tom help her with the move – it is specific playwright/directorial choice not to tie the play and their relationship into a nice simplistic bow, and is not inconclusive at all. The play ends with Elizabeth speaking to her mother, letting her know that she is going to try to make it work and asking her mom to wish her good luck. It is unfortunate that you missed all that but most fortunate that our audiences did not.

On our seventh performance, the first Monday, we had a Q + A. Had you been there, our audience would have explained to you all the sections you missed and were confused about.

I generally don’t give this much detail of the review when I read them, but in this case I found it necessary as you, being a theatre critic, should try to be more focused when reviewing a production. I hope you pay more attention and try to listen more closely and actually look at the stage to see more while you are reviewing in the future, as all our artists deserve someone who actually understands live theatre. Thankfully no director takes your advice, especially in this particular play. With all your suggested cuts, we would have had no story line at all. FYI during the Q + A the character of the mum became a focal point, as the audience loved her. Ironically, everything that our audiences loved and felt moved by, your comment was “…it came from nowhere”. Clearly, you seem to be the only one that found the text “confusing”, and did not understand the through-line of the play. In addition, the music was underscore and director choice – and again, audience feedback has been extremely positive in that regard as well. It is most fortunate that you did not decide to become a director. Thank you for keeping your comments until we finished the run. Not only were we sold out, but we ended up having Standing Room Only in order to accommodate our patrons. And that was mostly because of word of mouth. I hope other theatre companies do not take any of your comments seriously. Do us all a favour and don’t ever consider directing.

That’s all I want to say on the whole enterprise.


2 Re March 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm

I totally disagree with Lynne’s review of “a life beyond doubt”. I felt the play was well written and the actors very professional. I enjoyed the play immensely and would highly recommend it