As part of its 25th anniversary season, Blyth Festival is celebrating the role it has played in bringing indigenous drama to the stage by presenting a lineup of new plays by well-known Canuck scribes, among them David French, whose “Leaving Home,” “Of the Fields, Lately,” “Jitters” and “Salt-Water Moon” are seminal works of Canadian dramatic literature.
“That Summer” is unlikely to achieve the same distinction. It continues a dramatic tradition of setting stories in small towns and peopling them with characters whose experiences may be insignificant in the larger world but carry tremendous emotional impact within their particular communities — and in the hearts of an audience that can relate to their pains and triumphs.
A narrator, played by Stratford actor Michelle Fisk, has come back with her granddaughter to the small Ontario town where she spent summers with her father and sister. While visiting the grave of her neighbor, Mrs. Crump, she begins to recall the fateful months many years ago in which first love and tragedy both struck.
Structurally, “That Summer” is a conventional memory play, with Fisk moving the plot along, but there’s not a lot here when you unravel it: Girl meets boy, dysfunctional family finally gets its act together, neighbor tries to patch things up, surprise plot twist creates pathos. Yet the play does deliver a potent dose of nostalgia which should appeal to audiences craving a simpler, kinder world where even death had dignity.
It’s the kind of script that community theaters love, with just enough raunchiness to feel naughty, and just enough literary and poetic references (Robbie Burns, Henry James, Yeats) to give the impression of intellectual muscle.
Bill Glassco, who has staged all of French’s plays, directs “That Summer” on automatic pilot, adding no flourishes or special insights. The cast acquits itself well, infusing the characters with an honesty that keeps the show from drowning in sentimental syrup and giving it an engaging simplicity that is both attractive and appropriate.
But after waiting some years for a new play from French, one would be hard pressed to call this contribution significant — or memorable.