Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen hasn’t been produced much outside his native Alberta, despite a 2003 nod for the Governor General’s Literary Award in Drama and a well-received 2005 production of his “Einstein’s Gift” at Off Broadway’s Epic Theater Center. That should start to change, however, with the Toronto premiere of his 2002 play “Apple” and the announcement that his one-woman look at the life of Anne Hathaway, “Shakespeare’s Will,” will be part of the 2007 season at the Stratford Festival.
The quality of Thiessen’s writing lies in the texture of his dialogue. He alternates passages of almost Pinteresque sparseness with deeply felt speeches that erupt from his characters like volcanoes. And unlike many Canadian writers, his work has a universal quality about it that doesn’t rely on local references to make sense.
“Apple” begins as the story of a disintegrating marriage, but winds up a searing parable about how we fail people when they need us most.
Andy (Kevin Hanchard) is a 40-ish cipher, newly downsized from his government job. His wife, Evelyn (Sarah Orenstein), is a virago of a real estate agent, judging everyone in the world around her and finding them wanting. Fleeing from her wrath to a park bench, Andy discovers Samantha (Niki Landau), a wounded free spirit who offers him the moment, the chance to be free.
They begin an affair, but before the play can disintegrate into cliche, Thiessen starts playing with our expectations. The hateful Evelyn is diagnosed with breast cancer and Samantha proves to be her oncologist’s intern. Andy doesn’t rise to heights of nobility, but continues to paddle in the shallows of his own self-absorption, and Samantha proves to be goods far more damaged than Andy ever realized.
In a series of spare but powerful scenes, the action moves to a conclusion that has deep emotional resonance, but never asks for easy tears. “It’s all about knowing,” says Evelyn, who seems to be speaking for the author.
Ken Gass has directed with a fine ear for the rhythms of the play, staging it on Marian Wihak’s asymmetrical set with an eye for arresting images.
Hanchard plays Andy without apology, never trying to sugarcoat him or make us feel sorry for him, and Landau’s Samantha is a fine portrait of a woman on the edge. Best of all is Orenstein’s Evelyn, going from hateful bitch to thoughtful woman on a sad, graceful curve.
There are no saints in Thiessen’s work, and no sinners, either — just people looking for the way out of lives that have ceased to make sense.
One set, three actors and a playwright with a unique voice: It’s the kind of package that should prove inviting to theaters everywhere.