Canadian playwright David French’s “Leaving Home” was considered a ground-breaking piece of theater when it preemed in Toronto in 1972, enjoying immediate popularity and a New York run two years later. But after that initial burst of interest, it fell off the theatrical radar, and, in fact, hasn’t been presented professionally in Toronto since its debut. Soulpepper Theater Company’s revival proves that, in the right hands, this sturdy piece of realistic drama still has the power to move an audience.
French’s work is very much a “family” play of the period, complete with a functioning kitchen sink and scenes of family trauma set around a dining room table. But what gives it a lasting strength is the potency of the father-son relationship at its core, one slightly reminiscent of that between Willy and Biff in “Death of a Salesman.”
Jacob Mercer (Kenneth Welsh) is a hard-drinking blue-collar worker with a long-suffering wife and two sons. One son, Bill (Anthony Johnston), is the easy-going type, about to enter into a shotgun wedding with his pregnant girlfriend.
The play takes place the night before the ceremony which activates for the plot. But the real drama rests with other son Ben (Jeff Lillico), the quiet, brooding intellectual of the family. There’s a long-standing enmity between Jacob and Ben, rooted in their fundamental differences, that finally explodes under the pressure of the evening’s events.
Ted Dykstra directs with a straightforward approach, embracing the old-fashioned dramaturgy and allowing it the space it needs to flourish.
He’s aided by a strong cast, headed by Welsh. The actor began his career on the Canadian stage but moved to the U.S., where he’s best known for his 1987 Off Broadway performance opposite Kathy Bates in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” In recent years, Welsh has concentrated on film and television, but his full-blooded performance here indicates the stage is still his real home.
Stratford veteran Diane D’Aquila is a solid presence as Jacob’s wife Mary, and Lillico strikes the necessary sparks off Welsh as son Ben. There’s also fine comedy support from Jane Spidell as a blowsy mother of the bride and Oliver Dennis as her date, a mortician who doesn’t say a single line.
“Leaving Home” may be firmly rooted in both its original time and its naturalistic genre, but its effectiveness in this staging proves it’s still a play worth revisiting.