Canadian playwright-actor Daniel MacIvor may have abandoned his successful series of one-man shows (“House,” “Monster,” “Here Lies Henry”) last spring, but he hasn’t turned his back on theater. His recent play about Tennessee Williams (“His Greatness”) preemed in Vancouver in October, and Toronto’s Tarragon Theater is giving a mainstage showing to his “How It Works,” seen previously in a smaller 2006 production at Nova Scotia’s Mulgrave Road Theater. If this work is any indication, MacIvor the virtuoso solo performer may be stepping out of the limelight, but MacIvor the humanist playwright is coming to the foreground.
On the simplest level, this is the kind of story that could easily have wound up as a Movie of the Week. Halifax cop Al (Tom Barnett) has a broken marriage to the glam Donna (Fiona Highet) and a teenage daughter, Brooke (Bethany Jillard), hooked on crystal meth.
Al’s new girlfriend, the folksy and wise Christine (Caroline Gillis), decides to take Brooke under her wing, helping her deal with hidden problems from her past. The end result is decidedly of the warm and cuddly variety.
What saves the whole evening from being gooey and instead makes it moving is MacIvor’s sharp theatrical skill. The obvious scene is never acted out, big moments are suggested rather than underlined, and a beautifully stylized physical production (three floating polished platforms designed and lit exquisitely by Kim Purtell) give the production a classiness that surpasses the plot’s soap opera dynamics.
An excellent cast also rises to the occasion. Gillis has been one of MacIvor’s muses for decades, originating the female leads in many of his plays. Her deep, warm empathy and no-nonsense sense of reality make her his ideal spokesperson. Barnett is also excellent as a nice guy trying to make sense out of the bad hand he’s been dealt, while Highet is attractively vulnerable as the well-meaning Donna.
The breakout performance comes from recent U. of Toronto grad Jillard, who delivers a deeply layered characterization as Brooke. Jillard was recently tapped to play the title role in the long-awaited Toronto production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” this spring, and she definitely looks up for the task.
“How It Works” is a small, tight, simple play driven by compassion for its characters and an understanding of the world they live in. Appropriately, it works.