Review: IN THE WAKE OF WETTLAUFER (at the Blyth Festival)

by Lynn on August 31, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont.

Written by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt

Directed by Gil Garrat

Set and costumes by Dariusz Korbiel

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Caroline Gillis

Nathan Howe

Rachel Jones

Robert King

Jane Spidell

A brave attempt to examine the effects of the murders of helpless seniors by nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer, that gets muddled when too many story lines get in the way.

The Story. The feisty Blyth Festival has been doing original Canadian theatre in that little community for 45 consecutive seasons. The plays deal with the life and world around that community.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer was co-written by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt. It deals in part with four siblings trying to deal with their father Frank’s rapidly developing dementia, and with the fall out caused by the deaths of several vulnerable senior citizens in several nursing homes over the yeas at the hands of nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer.  Frank was in one of the nursing homes where Wettlaufer worked. Frank raged at a nurse and the suggestion is that it was Wettlaufer.

It’s an indictment of a health care system that did not protect its elderly patients; that seemed to refuse to fire Elizabeth Wettlaufer when there were complaints, letting her resign instead.

It’s also about the frustrations of four siblings who seem at odds to know the best way to care for their father who is suffering from dementia.

The Production and Comment. Gil Garratt directs the production with confidence. The action generally takes place around a dining room table.

The siblings obviously don’t get along; long-seated animosity? Lynn is the one who stayed to take care of their father Frank as her siblings scattered across the country. Rachel Jones plays Lynn with a sense of exhaustion, worry and resignation. She carries the burden the others don’t have to. Jane Spidell plays Mary who has her own demons and tries to hide them. Brenda is played by Caroline Gillis with compassion. Their brother John is always working, never there to help but is ready to take over without conferring with his siblings. Nathan Howe plays John with a fine sense of arrogance and a closed-mindedness that makes you grit your teeth.  The excellent cast methodically. realizes all the frustration when one sibling tries to take over or doesn’t share information. The focus of all their concern is their father Frank. Robert King brings out the frustration of a man who doesn’t know what is going on in his head, thinks he’s perfectly fine and is angry at those around him. It’s a performance that builds to a shattering explosion.

But the play is a problem because it doesn’t know what it wants to be: a story about a dysfunctional family or an indictment of the health care system.

We see how these siblings don’t get along in Act I. At the end of Act I we see Lynn answer her phone—she says she always has it on in case the nursing home calls—and look stunned at what she is hearing. We never learn what the call was about. We surmise that Frank is dead, but we aren’t sure.

Act II seems to leave that story and deal with the trial of Wettlaufer and how she slid through the system with people covering their butt and hers and not firing her. Much of the dialogue is a taped recording of people at the trial. A large segment is the voice of Justice Eileen E. Gillese who was appointed commissioner of the Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of the Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System. Her comments are devastating.

In Act II the siblings are not even sure if their father was one of Wettlaufer’s victims and it’s never revealed.

The playwrights, Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt, over-wrote the ending. After a long estrangement Lynn and John agree to disagree but move on with their lives closer than before. The play should end there.  But McIntosh and Garratt added a flash-back scene in which Frank is speaking at his wife’s funeral. He recalled many lovely moments the family enjoyed and that they should hold on to those moments. It’s as if those memories are to override the animosity they have shown each other for the whole play.

A cheat.  Please cut the scene, it has nothing to do with the play we have been watching.

It’s brave of the Blyth Festival to tackle such a thorny subject, but this play needs another pass to cut the extraneous bits and flesh out the characters more so there are less holes in the story.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Began: Aug. 2, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 6, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, approx.



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