Esther Purves-Smith as the Woman in The List. Benjamin Laird Photography
May 30 – June 8, 2013
EPCOR CENTRE Motel
Wrap gifts, thaw chicken, hair appointment, milk, bread, cheese. Common items that could be found on any housewife’s to do list. But this isn’t any common housewife. And The List isn’t about any common To-Do list. Jennifer Tremblay’s ‘La Liste’, which received the Governor General’s Literary Award for French Drama (2008), is a meditation on female isolation and the repetitive numbness employed to fill the gaps in a hollow life.
As the play opens we are confronted by Set Designer, David Fraser’s white-walled bare minimum stage. The only thing stopping it from being stark is the precisely drawn words that litter the walls – words drawn from the never-ending list of the one-woman narrator of the play. Groceries, rake leaves, pay credit card, iron black shirt. These items are read aloud to us by the woman (Esther Purves-Smith) with passionless mechanical drone. We soon learn that this mother of three young boys has recently moved out to the country (“I wanted to inhale my husband”) in an effort to thwart the growing inattentiveness shown to her by her spouse. But instead of the country bringing them closer, the husband now has more reason to leave. He says it’s due to the long drive into the city to work, she believes it’s because, “she’s a bitter fruit”, regardless of where she calls home.
Instead of trying to make a go of it in her new country village, the woman reverts to list making and precision-like task-doing in a zombie-like state, engaging with others (even her own children) only in a perfunctory manner. But a kind and caring neighbour, Caroline, decides to befriend the woman in spite of her standoffishness. Despite their very different personalities (Caroline runs a house where the laundry basket often sits overflowing in the living room), Caroline breaks through to become a friend of sorts. That is until tragedy hits. An indirect result of the woman’s list-making causes Caroline’s death and plummets the woman into even greater rote-like despair.
Are we all depressed enough yet? If not then Micheline Chevrier’s direction should do the trick. Taking minimalism to an extreme, Chevrier keep Purves-Smith stationary and still for most of the performance. When she finally is allowed to get up from her table and chair, unclasp her hands and actually bring some corporeal breadth to her acting, Purves-Smith simply stands ram rod straight and keeps on talking. If Chevrier’s intention was to mimic the tension the woman feels by rendering her physically inert, then she has done so with as little charm as possible making the staging stiff with its own seriousness.
Good thing then that Tremblay’s writing (and Shelley Tepperman’s translation) is so compelling to listen to. Even better is that Purves-Smith manages to draw out real drama in the words and characters in spite of her directorial handcuffs. But something interesting occurred to me about half way through the sixty minutes or so that the play inhabits. With nothing visually to provide real connection with the play or the actress, The List started to seem more and more to me like a script or short story simply being read aloud. Like an audio book. To test this theory I closed my eyes for portions of the play to see if I got anything less out of the experience than when I watched the non-action on the stage. The answer was no. In fact, I slightly preferred not looking as it allowed my own imagination to colour the story in ways that the direction simply wasn’t doing.
For me, a play that I’d just as soon listen to driving in my car or doing housework as watch onstage is not really a play at all. This is not to say The List is a poor experience. It’s an interestingly bleak, cautionary tale about the decisions we make and how trapped we can get in our own unhappiness. But don’t necessarily worry if you can’t make it to this show, I recommend you read the script.
For the guys – Despite the woman’s semi justified unhappiness, she is an utterly unlikable character that will frustrate you from the outset. With not much to cling to story or staging-wise, your desire to close your eyes may be more the sleep than to listen. SKIP IT
For the girls – Empathy with the woman will take work, but it’s there to be found. She is what we fear of becoming. Let the words and Purves-Smith’s strong delivery provide the experience and you can overcome the deficits in this production. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Stuff happens, but being told about it in such a stiff manner will be unsatisfying. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – It’s a good performance of an interesting script, but the overly taut production tends to neuter it in too many places. MAYBE SEE IT