Review: THE WRITER (The Foster Festival, St. Catharines)

by Lynn on June 27, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Guy Bannerman

Jamie Williams

A touching play about a father-son relationship, the challenges of creating art, growing old with difficulties and the importance of telling people you love them when they are still able to know what that means.

The Story. Donald Wellner is “The Writer.” He’s working on a new play. His last one was about 33 years before. It was celebrated. It won a Pulitzer Prize and since then he hasn’t replicated that success.  He has recently separated from his wife of many years and moved into his own small apartment.

His son Blake has come to visit. Blake is also listed in the program as “The Writer” but Donald down plays the notion that Blake is a writer because he ‘only’ writes travel piece for newspapers. Over the many years span of the play Donald is stingy with his praise for his son but heaps praise on his absent daughter, Mandy, now a doctor. It seems that the family has learned that Donald has a secret about another woman and it was serious enough for his wife to divorce him and his daughter to cut him out of her life. To make matters more complicated, Donald has the signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This being a Norm Foster play, his 60th world premiere, matters are not cut and dried. They are very funny and often touching, but not simple. One of its many charms.

 The Production. Designer Peter Hartwell has created an efficient set of Donald’s apartment. It’s simply appointed. A table and a typewriter are at centre stage. There are a few mementos on the shelves. Over the course of the play Donald Wellner (Guy Bannerman) and Blake (Jamie Williams) generally wear the same clothes from scene to scene—casual shirt and pants for Donald and black jeans and shirt for Blake. There might be a change from the norm in the second act, but nothing drastic. There aren’t any projections indicating the passage of time because the play does it quite nicely.

Guy Bannerman as Donald is irascible and sometimes cutting in his remarks to Blake about his writing and his place in his father’s life and Donald is often irreverent and very funny. Because Jamie Williams plays Blake as a confident man Donald’s cutting remarks do not wound (that much). Williams accepts Donald’s dismissive remarks with good grace and a sense of resignation. Blake knows that Donald prefers his sister, Mandy, and accepts that without rancor.

Donald is losing his memory and often is not aware of it. But there is a scene that Donald is aware and Bannerman shows that in the subtlest, most understated way with a pause and a look of concern. That is resounding. Jamie Williams as Blake keeps reminding Donald that he’s mis-remembered, yet it’s later in the play that Blake realizes that there is something wrong with Donald.

Let me be bold here, but I believe every single person in the audience of The Writer will have a story that puts them in the world of the play. They will know somebody who is experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease, or has it, or is worried about having it. Norm Foster puts us in that world with humour, seriousness, compassion, frustration and  understanding. And just for fun, there is a bombshell of a revelation that will have your eyeballs popping.

Director Patricia Vanstone does an exemplary job of bringing the play to life by guiding her excellent actors to be in the moment. Both Guy Bannerman as Donald and Jamie Williams as Blake invest subtlety and nuance in their performances. Information that will stun the audience just ‘drops’ as an afterthought without pounding it to be noticed. The direction and the performances make us look harder rather than taking the easy way out and making moments obvious.

Foster gives Blake a speech to his father in Act II that is so true, so moving that it leaves one limp with emotion. And yet I don’t think it’s sentimental. Something to think about even for characters who are healthy. This is Norm Foster’s 60th world premiere. An astonishing record. The Foster Festival is one of the bright presents in summer theatre. How lucky we are to have it.

Comment. I’m always fascinated how characters handle memory loss of a loved one in this age of information overload. The Writer takes place in the present. There is a reference to the death of Neil Simon who did die within the last year or two of Alzheimer’s Disease. Then why wouldn’t Blake know there is something wrong with his father? Surely since Blake travels so much and sees his father irregularly, he would notice a change more readily when he visited. Yet Blake doesn’t quickly twig that his father’s memory loss is serious. Hmmmm. I’m not sure this is a quibble with the play. It just amazes me how people don’t get it that memory loss is often something that is concerning, and not just ‘old age’ regardless of all the information out there to inform us.

The Foster Festival presents:

Opened: June 21, 2019.

Closes: July 5, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Peter Rand June 27, 2019 at 9:45 pm

Loved this show. Love how your reviews often bring out for me feelings/thoughts/reactions that I am less conscious about until you spill them out!


2 Harold Povilaitis July 8, 2019 at 5:57 pm

Lynn, what a superb and insightful review of such a wonderful and deeply-moving theatre production !!! BRAVO to the whole cast and creative team !!!

We are indeed VERY lucky to have the Foster Festival based here in Southern Ontario, presenting TWO world premieres of NEW Norm Foster plays each and every summer season !!! Theatre fans in Southern Ontario were already TRULY blessed, to be able to enjoy BOTH the Stratford and the Shaw Festivals … and now, the superlative Foster Festival has ALSO been added to our summer theatrical feast !!!