by Lynn on September 27, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Music and Lyrics for original songs by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann
Set and costumes by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting by Nick Blais
Sound by Sam Sholdice
Cast: William Greenblatt
Maxwell Haynes
Noah Reid

Annie Baker makes silences sing in this meditation on loneliness, otherness, and not fitting in. And the production is a theatre gift.

The Story. KJ and Jasper are best friends. They support each other. They sing together. KJ wanted to form a band and one of the names was The Aliens. They listen to each other when no one else will. They both love the poetry of Charles Bukowski. They are dropouts from school (KJ from university, Jasper from high school). Both are in their early 30s and drifting. They hang out in the desolate back patio of a local coffee shop where only the employees are allowed. Evan is 17 and just started to work at the coffee shop. He’s tasked with telling the two young men to move along as they are not allowed back there. They don’t move. Evan is also a shy, awkward misfit and is charmed by KJ and Jasper who accept him into their world.

The Production. Anahita Dehbonehie has created the most wonderful, bleak, grungy world for this play—the back patio of the coffee shop. It has one picnic table in the middle of the space. The audience is along the two ‘brick’ walls of the space (the brick is suggested not real). Graffiti is on the walls. Cigarette butts are everywhere, including along the ledges of the walls as you leave the space. You have to look hard to see them. Now that’s taking detail to a fine point. There are garbage bins at the back. Above the back wall is a window, which when the performance is happening, is lit, revealing a woman up there drinking from a cup and reading a book. The woman does not look out onto the space. These guys are ignored by the world. (The woman is Kate Sandeson, the stage manager). Again, I love that detail of having a person seen through a window, but not looking out the window. There are a few plastic chairs around the back of the space. Nick Blais’ lighting is often fluorescent-bright, perhaps to suggest specimens under close observation.

At the top of the show Jasper sits on the picnic table with his feet on the seat, smoking, in torn jeans and a sweat-shirt. KJ is upstage sitting in a chair, wearing sunglasses, shorts and a t-shirt. Silence. Silence, Smoke. Silence. KJ begins to sing. Jasper quietly puckers a wad of saliva from his lips and lets it drop on the ground. He’s angry. He was in a relationship with a woman and it ended. From his anger I figure she broke up with him. Silence.

Evan appears. Wild hair, meek-looking young man, timorous voice telling the men they have to leave. They stay. They aren’t threatening. They see a kindred spirit in Evan and include him in their orbit.

Director Mitchell Cushman has meticulously realized the small world of these three men, where they can be themselves without criticism. Jasper is comfortable reading KJ his novel in progress. KJ can sing his songs. Evan can stand there, awkwardly, and listen and watch these guys that intrigue him so much.

In Noah Reid’s quiet, brooding performance as Jasper, there is the anger and sense of pain at the ending of his relation with his girlfriend. He smokes deep and slow and carefully stubs out the cigarette. KJ, played beautifully by William Greenblatt in an understated way seems a philosophical man trying to be cool–those ever-present sunglasses, who is more at sea it seems than Jasper. No action is random. It all means something and there are always surprises. This is Maxwell Haynes Toronto debut acting for Coal Mine as Evan. He is compelling. There is a hint of an up-speak, a voice that seems deceptively awkward and timing that is right on the money. He has a scene when he has to sing and play the guitar. At first he sings softly and woefully off-key. He gets louder and louder, more and more off-key but it doesn’t matter because it is the most gut-wrenching expression of loss and grief you will hear in a long time.

Comment. Annie Baker uses silences often more than words for her characters to express themselves. She notes that often silences should be five to ten seconds long. And these aren’t pauses (those are at least three seconds long she says in the text). These aren’t “Pinter Pauses” either—moments full of possible danger or foreboding or something forbidding.

Annie Baker challenges her audience to consider the silences as important as dialogue. A Baker silence is not just something you wait through until someone speaks. It’s something you regard, observe and consider. It’s a means of expression for KJ and Jasper. It’s part of their dialogue. Evan is just learning its meaning.

Annie Baker writes of the misfits who don’t fit in. In the case of Jasper, KJ and Evan they are ‘the aliens.’ Stunning play. Wonderful, moving production.

Produced by Coal Mine Theatre

Opened: Sept. 20, 2017.
I saw it: Sept. 26, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours

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