Toronto’s John Mighton studied as a philosopher and mathematician before launching a career as a playwright. All three of his chosen fields can be detected in “Half-Life,” a carefully wrought, deeply moving study of love, old age and memory that deserves to have a long life on world stages.
Developed by Necessary Angel Company and originally presented at the Tarragon Theater in early 2005 to rave reviews and full houses, the play swept Canada’s major theater prizes. It toured Ottawa and Quebec before a successful run in Scotland and now has been picked up as part of its subscription season by CanStage, Canada’s largest not-for-profit theater. This production will play Winnipeg and Vancouver and then go on in October to Australia’s Melbourne Theater Festival.
Obviously there’s something about this script that resonates with a large variety of audiences; it’s likely Mighton’s sense of humanity. Although the play is set in a senior care facility and deals with the bittersweet scenario of people losing their minds and their hearts at the same time, Mighton manages to encompass all of us, regardless of age.
Clara (Carolyn Hetherington) recently lost her husband and is sinking rapidly into dementia. Patrick (Eric Peterson) battles depression as well as alcoholism and fights authority at every turn.
These two mismatched individuals not only become drawn to each other, but insist they briefly fell in love more than 60 years ago in the early days of World War II. Mighton leaves it wide open as to whether this affair really happened or is something they have mutually created to ease the pain of their final years.
Their story is paralleled by that of their children. Anna (Laura De Carteret) is Patrick’s daughter and Donald (Diego Matamoros) is Clara’s son. Each is recovering from a painful divorce, yet wanting to reach out to each other the way their parents are.
As the two stories weave together, Mighton spices things up with vividly drawn supporting characters, like crusty old Agnes (Barbara Gordon), the crankiest of patients; nurse Tammy (Maggie Huculak), who may be skimming money from her charges; and the Reverend (Randy Hughson), a cleric easily prone to tears and bad homilies (“Life is like an endless trip to the laundromat”).
In the end, we realize Mighton wants us to look at how all of these individuals fit into the cosmos, helping to define what love, belief and memory really are. “If there is no God, then everything is forgotten,” says the Reverend. In Mighton’s deftly philosophical way, he makes all the pieces of this puzzle come together.
The cast is uniformly superb, with special kudos to Hetherington as the luminous Clara, rediscovering a lost love. Peterson is stoically fine as her partner and Gordon is richly amusing as the crotchety Agnes. (“If I was dead, then at least I wouldn’t have to do crafts.”)
The younger (well, middle-aged) generation also is well represented with Matamoros’ conflicted Donald, De Carteret’s empathetic Anna, Huculak’s no-nonsense Tammy and Hughson’s multilevel Reverend.
Director Daniel Brooks has guided the play with a sensitive hand, never letting it fall into sentimentality, yet allowing all the necessary emotion to emerge.
If there’s one criticism of the production, it’s that it hasn’t been expanded well on the physical level from its original staging in a 220-seat venue to its current run in an 875-seat house. Visually, the show has a sparseness and chill that seem at odds with the depth and warmth of its text.
Although this cast is excellent, it’s easy to see that Mighton’s play is strong enough on its own to exist in other productions. With its smallish cast and limited physical demands weighed against the quality of the writing and the universality of its themes, it should prove attractive to theater companies of all sizes everywhere.