In "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again," Michael Tremblay writes about his mother with that rarest of sentiments: love untainted by embarrassment.
The play doesn't equivocate, hold back or glance away. Although the 100-minute show is quite funny, it doesn't hide its feelings behind a scrim of jokes. And it's not afraid to weave an extravagant fantasy when that's the best way of getting at the truth. If only the acting and staging were as wise and honest as the script.
The show takes place in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s, among the French-Canadian working class. The piece is made up of five unconnected vignettes that occur when the unnamed narrator is 10, 13, 16, 18 and 20. The last takes place shortly before Nana (the narrator's mother) dies of cancer. In that context, the play's cumbersome title seems absolutely right; one of the consolations of art is that it brings the dead back to life.
Plot? There's precious little. Action? Even less. The set consists of just a table and two chairs. Specifics are purposely downplayed, because, as the narrator tells us, Nana isn't just his mother, but any mother, and has existed throughout the ages and in all cultures. And what a fascinating study in contradictions she is: sentimental without compassion; sharp-witted without insight; she demanded constant attention while resisting being known. She hid behind a flow of words that were extraordinarily witty and frequently cruel, turning her sister-in-law's death into a comic scene and mocking her afflicted young niece.
Perhaps the funniest vignette is a verbal sparring match between the skeptical 13-year-old boy and his mother as they analyze her favorite book, a wildly improbable romance. The conversation skitters this way and that like a centipede walking on ice, with both the narrator and Nana flailing about in a desperate attempt to maintain their balance. It's hilarious, but beneath it, the audience senses a subtler, more poignant dynamic: a mother whose intelligence exceeded her opportunities in life, trying to keep pace with her precocious son.
Unfortunately, the production by Montreal's Centaur Theatre Company backs off from these contradictions, especially in the final scene. Granted, it's extravagant, but the way to carry it off is to play it with a blazing sincerity instead of undercutting the emotional impact with jokiness.
Earlier, there's the opposite problem. Director Gordon McCall imbues heavy elements of foreshadowing in a scene that's patently meant to be played for laughs; the narrator himself describes it as comic. Perhaps McCall is afraid we won't like Nana. Perhaps he thinks he has to prepare us for the final plot development. Either way, he sells the audience short.
Nicola Cavendish's Nana is a small, bustling person, with a hairstyle that's flat in the center and rolled around the edges, like a breakfast pastry. Her performance is a puzzling mix of subtlety and slapstick.
On the plus side, even when the words coming out of Nana's mouth are funny, Cavendish's face conveys her character's underlying feelings. When she upbraids her son for a dangerous prank, her eyes glitter and her cheeks flush. The audience never doubts that she's truly angry as she describes her death from shame in hyperbolic detail: "I felt like the kitchen floor was about to cave in and I was going to end up downstairs, lying spread-eagle on Madame Forget's kitchen table with bits of baloney sandwiches stuck to my back."
On the minus side, her acting style is gestural in the extreme, and it can be pretty irritating. For instance, when she talks about hot flashes, she flaps a towel between her legs to cool herself off. The real Nana doubtless acted out all her nouns and verbs, but when Cavendish does it, it comes across as kitsch.
Jean-Guy Bouchard is most convincing when the narrator is an adult. In the childhood scenes, he tries so hard to capture a boy's physical mannerisms that he defeats himself by not engaging fully with Cavendish. He forgets to let a small smile creep across his face when Nana amuses him. He forgets to let us see the boy's fidgety boredom, and most of all, he forgets to show us the boy's inquisitive mind reflected in his eyes. As a result, Bouchard seems to be portraying someone dumb, not young, which surely wasn't his intent.
But the script is so strong that it overcomes occasional flaws in the staging. "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" works as a mother-son love story, but it also works as an extended metaphor about the power of art.
Nana was a gifted storyteller, aided by an imagination of astonishing scope and specificity. She was her son's first writing role model, at one point telling him that she exaggerates because "otherwise I'd explode." The narrator, a writer-in-training, requests a description: "How would you explode? Usually you add an image."
Nana taught her boy about the consolations provided by art, and Tremblay learned his lessons well, especially this one: Through art, he could erase the unsatisfactory ending provided by life and create a finale more beautiful, more just, more fitting in every way for the mother he loved so much.
'For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, plus selected matinees. Through Oct. 29
Call: (202) 488-3300 or on the Web at www.arenastage.org