Review: among men

by Lynn on April 29, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont. until May 15. 2022.

Written by David Yee

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Set and costumes designed by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound design and composer, Christopher Stanton

Cast: Ryan Hollyman

Carlos Gonzalez Vio

An explosion of stunning language, poetry and a deep dive into the intoxicating, desperate world of being a poet and needing to write poems. Wonderfully directed and acted.

The Story. 1957, Roblin Lake, Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County. Canadian poets, Al Purdy and Milton Acorn are building Purdy’s A-frame house where Purdy will live with his wife Eurithe. The house will become a celebrated writer’s retreat after Purdy dies, but for the purposes of the play, Purdy and Acorn are building it. Acorn is a trained carpenter. Purdy makes the coffee and eggs and muses on the hierarchy of the different kinds of cooked eggs in the process. Neither man has achieved their revered place in Canadian poetry at the time, but the need to write poetry is there, burning in their bellies. They bolster each other when they faulter or feel insecure; they know each other’s weak spots and they are each other’s champion.

The Production. Joanna Yu’s set of the vaulting outline of the A-frame house dominates the Factory Theatre stage. There is a big comfortable chair that has seen better days, a table and some chairs and a back wall that is set off with a flimsy covering. A wood stove of sorts provides heat. There are a few ‘mobiles’ with crumpled paper attached. These are discarded poems. The whole place suggests this is a work in progress. There is no running water. Al Purdy (Ryan Hollyman) gets the water for coffee from a bucket he ladles into the pot. Milton Acorn, (Carlos Gonzalez Vio) smokes cigars, gives order for coffee etc. and does little to help with the domestic arrangements. He does know his way around a hammer. Purdy seems almost fastidious in his shirt and pants, at least he doesn’t wear them to bed. Acorn in his grubby pants and shirt looks like he sleeps in his clothes and perhaps hasn’t taken them off in a rather long time.

Al Purdy, as played by Ryan Hollyman, is the more passionate, excitable of the two. His linguistic dexterity is dazzling. He finds Milton Acorn to be lacking as a person and exasperating—selfish, rude, insensitive to others in his behaviour, a clod. Acorn neglects to give Purdy a letter he was expecting from the CBC regarding a submitted play,  because Acorn just forgot. But Acorn makes up for it with his vibrant, passionate, heart-felt poetry and that’s what Purdy respects more than anything about him.

As Milton Acorn, Carlos Gonzalez Vio is morose, insecure about his place in poetry, his poverty and that he never fits in anywhere, not even with other poets. His language is equally as expressive but in a more vulgar, muscular way than Purdy’s.  But Acorn respects and supports Purdy’s work. They are the other’s support. Carlos Gonzalez Vio plays Acorn with an off-handed disdain about most things—it’s a performance that nicely hides a wounded soul.

The two men drink liquor prodigiously, insult the other, complain about the establishment and their lack of being recognized for their work but always at the heart of any conversation is the poetry that drives them.

Director Nina Lee Aquino has beautifully established the bonding of men who are not embarrassed to show their uncertainty or insecurity about their feelings, their yearning, or their attractions. Milton Acorn was smitten with the much younger Gwendolyn MacEwen but was too shy to tell her (he lost his shyness one assumed when they eventually married). Purdy, deeply in love with his wife Eurithe, urged Acorn to make a move to approach MacEwen. Acorn suffered shellshock in the war and in one of the production’s startling moments, Purdy is caring enough to hold Acorn tightly to get him through it. Again, Nina Lee Aquino’s deft hand beautifully establishes Purdy’s and Acorn’s intense masculinity, without any toxicity.  

At the heart of among men is the poetry of Milton Acorn and Al Purdy. It’s declared on a chair (“I Shout Love”); popped off in between drinks of liquor, tapped on an old typewriter, and remembered because it’s good and it’s not necessary to write it down.

Comment. David Yee has written a stunner of a play about two giants in Canadian poetry before they were successful and celebrated. The dialogue is rich, muscular, vibrant complex and the words float through the air like darting butterflies. Dazzling for all the right reasons. Yee has created a work of art that captures the obsessive, emotional, moving need to write poetry. In its way, among men is a play that celebrates the need to make art in the hardest, most debilitating of times, to not give up or lose hope. The play is a beautiful gift.

Produced by Factory Theatre.

Runs until May 15.

Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

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