One woman has cleaned house for the other for a decade. This proximity would seem the only connection between the two, as their financial circumstances and every aspect of their backgrounds are totally different. So is the way they deal with their lot in life. This is the focus of “Mrs. Dexter and Her Daily,” the static but engaging two-hander by Joanna McClelland Glass (“Trying”) now world-premiering at the National Arts Center in Ottawa.
Peggy Randall (Nicola Cavendish) is a 65-year-old daily, or live-out housekeeper. She chats to the audience about her assorted aches and pains, her rough life and the crisis in her employer’s circumstances that is changing things for both of them. With characteristic pragmatism, she also makes it clear she is a survivor who will cope with the bad and enjoy any good through the remainder of her life.
Meanwhile, her boss, Edith Dexter (Fiona Reid), languishes in her backyard wearing her nightdress and housecoat, occasionally calling instructions to Peggy. When she appears onstage in act two, she also addresses the audience or talks to various others by phone. She recounts how her husband left her for her former best friend and neighbor, because he couldn’t stand “the sameness of the days” after retirement.
There’s good news and bad about the play’s structure. As the two women share the stage, the form is two hour-long monologues, broken only by brief offstage or telephone conversations.
In the hands of lesser actors, this could become tedious. But director Marti Maraden’s gentle guidance and the superb quality of the performances from Cavendish (as adept at doing physical comedy as she is at inhabiting her character) and Reid (searching for oblivion through alcohol or sleep) keep “Mrs. Dexter and Her Daily” involving. Audience members sing along, clap and even talk back, indicating an extraordinary level of identification that’s a tribute to playwright, director and performers.
Mention should also be made of designer Pam Johnson’s stylish kitchen set, warmly lit by Marsha Sibthorpe.
Like McClelland Glass’ widely traveled hit, “Trying,” her new play is likely to have numerous productions. Although this slice-of-life has comic aspects, at its core this is a drama about fear of growing old and being alone, something with which an aging population can certainly identify.
The script could use a little further tweaking (a graphic description of the killing and skinning of a rabbit could go), and cutting back a notch on Mrs. Dexter’s self-pity would make her less irritating. But, with or without changes, this looks like another success for the playwright.