Theater history is littered with sins-of-the-fathers plays, but it’s the legacy of mothers that dominate the four generations of women in “Chalet Lines.” Welcome though that subject matter is, particularly from a young male writer, Lee Mattinson’s bitter comedy only intermittently delivers. Monica Dolan and Gillian Hanna lead an excellent five-actor cast, but they’re saddled with flimsy dramaturgy and weak direction from Madani Younis, the new a.d. of the Bush Theater.
Having dragged her meek, married daughter Abigail (Laura Elphinstone) and more desperate daughter Jolene (nicely over-excited Robyn Addison) to the chalet in the camp where her family has always holidayed, Loretta (a taut and ruthlessly unsentimental Dolan) is fiercely determined: “I’ve gone to far too much trouble for tonight to end in disaster.” The management “accidentally” cancelled their reservation but they’re still going to celebrate the 70th birthday of grandmother Barbara (Hanna) in their room.
A battleaxe who worships disappointment, Barbara is concentrating solely on the arrival of daughter Paula, the one that got away, a favoritism that has always rankled with Loretta and drives her towards destruction.
The more cheap booze is consumed, the more old resentments and rifts re-open between them. Family reunions are standard-issue theatrical set-ups for ripping off painful scabs, but Mattinson is more interested in patterns. In successive scenes, he cuts back to previous occasions spanning fifty years to reveal past motors for present pain.
His strengths are salty characterization and dialogue, winning laughs with one-liners as comic as they are caustic. The writing, is, however, more akin to TV dialogue, which carries less subtext, and nothing is off-limits for these women who roar with laughter as they drink through straws in the shape of penises.
Furthermore, his grip is weak on shape in what feels like too early a draft. Having made their point, scenes are allowed to run on repetitively.
The savagery with which these women treat one another is overextended. We see Loretta humiliate her daughter Abigail as a painfully shy teenager, which explains why she is unable to stick up for herself in later life. But in the dominant present-day scenes, 30-year-old Abigail is required to suffer in silence in a way that feels underwritten and contrived rather than dramatically convincing.
The spilling out of the pain is mirrored in Leslie Travers’s expressionist-angled set which splays the chalet walls out in every direction. But that comes at the expense of the actors, who look uncomfortable teetering about the steeply raked stage.
The unconvincing physicality between them is symptomatic of overstated direction. Hanna is touching when reappearing as her remembered 21-year-old self on the brink of an unwanted marriage controlled by her tyrannical mother, but Younis runs the scene so slowly that tension evaporates.
The remainder of Younis’s inaugural season looks far more idiosyncratic. This opener, the sort of one-room drama the Bush used to specialize in, is an example of the dangers of playing too safe.