Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Girl in the Picture Tries to Hang Up the Phone

Honest Picture of a Parent
or Where Theatre and Therapy Meet
by Christopher Douglas

In his elaborately titled play, The Girl in the Picture Tries to Hang Up the Phone, Hume Baugh tackles the minefield of a parent-child relationship – his relationship – with a dying, alcoholic mother.  And that is the key to this piece of theatre: it is Hume we watch onstage telling his own story.

As an audience, we sit in this small storefront theatre to watch Hume talk about himself and his mum as if he has had us over for tea or a beer: no fourth wall, no pretensions – pure honesty. Something which makes it admirable for him as a writer and lucky for him as a performer that Hume is as commanding and intriguing as he is, though odd for us watching. There is no pretence of an actor or a character stepping into the light; there is very little stage magic. As he states at the top of the show, there is only one sound cue and one projection. These two technical elements are the keys to the title however: one a recording of the phone trying to be hung up and the other a photograph from eighty years ago. These two artefacts symbolically bookend the life of Hume’s mother and his show about her.

As Hume states: "Long before she died, my mother disappeared, inside herself, into a fog of alcohol." And maybe that disappearance is precisely what Hume does here too, blurring reality with theatre as he goes inside himself to recall their loving but combative relationship.

His mother is a survivor – of divorce, of academia, of breast cancer. She goes through many struggles but cannot overcome everything. She remains a stubborn alcoholic. When she becomes ill, he tries to encourage her to stop drinking, only to be met with resistance at every turn. His siblings are afraid of hurting her feelings and she drinks to buoy herself up in the face of her genetic depression.

Without giving false names to people (or any names at all for that matter), Hume grows up under his mother’s strong personality and candidly deals with an old desk filled with memorabilia of his family including a colour photograph of his mother that I wish we had been shown it for just a second, to form our own impressions after having received his.

While this could simply become a piece of therapeutic monologue, Baugh manages to entertain and provoke. There were numerous times that our audience smiled in recognition of those awkward parental moments. Baugh chooses not to distance himself from the piece because it is his life onstage, but he also chooses not to distance the audience from the story, because we all identify a piece of ourselves in what he has to say. We have had those moments where we scream at loved ones or try to counsel a family member through tough times.

Obviously, the direction of a play like this should remain invisible, so kudos to Mark Cassidy for this seamless staging that makes his dramaturgical advice more impressive than his blocking.

Among the funnier moments in the show, Hume narrates a very cute letter that his eight-year-old self wrote to his mother while she was in hospital or his story of the last play of his that his mother travelled to Toronto to see. Although, even in the laughs, there is a glimmer of pain, but that acknowledgement that we too have been the butt of that joke is a part of life. Those glimpses into humanity are what Baugh exposes so naturally in The Girl in the Picture – those glimpses within both our lives and his.

The Girl in the Picture Tries to Hang Up the Phone runs Nov. 27-Dec. 8 at Videofag 

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