April 21, 2019

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Daniel MacIvor shines in compelling drama

Daniel MacIvor's character Dougie has some medical issues he battles with booze instead of his prescribed medication. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Daniel MacIvor's character Dougie has some medical issues he battles with booze instead of his prescribed medication. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sometimes the most devastating lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

That's a key theme running through playwright Daniel MacIvor's New Magic Valley Fun Town, a four-character drama centred on Dougie (played by MacIvor), a Cape Bretoner living a life of rustic semi-exile in a cosy trailer home.

We find Dougie in preparation — hauling in wine, No Frills salty snacks and a two-four of Molson Canadian — for a party. The invitees include Dougie's estranged wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis) and his depressed grad-student daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald), on an indefinite leave of studies from Toronto.

But the guest of honour is Dougie's childhood friend Allen (Andrew Moodie). He is a respected black academic based at the University of Toronto. Back in the day — much to Sandy's horror — he went by "Charky," a supposedly benign racial nickname that Dougie insists was purely affectionate.

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Sometimes the most devastating lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

That's a key theme running through playwright Daniel MacIvor's New Magic Valley Fun Town, a four-character drama centred on Dougie (played by MacIvor), a Cape Bretoner living a life of rustic semi-exile in a cosy trailer home.

We find Dougie in preparation — hauling in wine, No Frills salty snacks and a two-four of Molson Canadian — for a party. The invitees include Dougie's estranged wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis) and his depressed grad-student daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald), on an indefinite leave of studies from Toronto.

But the guest of honour is Dougie's childhood friend Allen (Andrew Moodie). He is a respected black academic based at the University of Toronto. Back in the day — much to Sandy's horror — he went by "Charky," a supposedly benign racial nickname that Dougie insists was purely affectionate.

Caroline Gillis as Cheryl meets the challenge of Dougie's inexplicable nature with a core of generosity. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Caroline Gillis as Cheryl meets the challenge of Dougie's inexplicable nature with a core of generosity. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Certainly, the bond between the long-separated buddies feels real as Dougie tidies for his childhood friend with the exacting fussiness of a playboy prepping his bachelor pad for his latest conquest. Dougie, we learn, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and reacts to an unexpected spill with a stream of expletive-laden horror.

He has other issues, including a series of medical battles and a tendency to self-medicate with booze instead of his prescribed medication. (Cheryl may be his ex, but she dutifully checks his prescription inventory with wifely concern.) His relationship with both Cheryl and Sandy is a jumble; there is love there, but a flash of towering rage from Dougie leads us to the suspicion that the problems with this family run much deeper than quirky sitcom-level dysfunction.

If the set-up leads us to certain expectations, MacIvor the playwright subverts them like a virtuoso. Are we leading to a racial reckoning or a big sexual disclosure? Allen's initial appearance doesn't give us hard clues. An assured intellectual, he presumably left Cape Breton behind for a life beyond his hometown's small-town realm of gossip and petty feuding.

But there is more to him, revealed in affectionate banter with Cheryl, and a flirtation with Sandy that undercuts sexual heat with a marked chill.

Eventually, it will all come down to Dougie, the kind of neurotic who tends to alter the orbits of everyone around him. We have a feeling he is due for a radical shift in his own trajectory.

The scenes in New Magic Valley Fun Town set the audience up for a Maritime variation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, but the drama is in a class of its own. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The scenes in New Magic Valley Fun Town set the audience up for a Maritime variation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, but the drama is in a class of its own. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The initial scenes may set us up for some Maritime-bumpkin variation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, minus the cruelty and gamesmanship. But while it invites legitimate comparison to that Edward Albee classic, the drama is in a class of its own. A co-production between the Prairie Theatre Exchange and Toronto's Tarragon Theatre directed by Richard Rose, New Magic Valley Fun Town is a character study with the urgency of a compelling whodunit. Over 90 minutes (with no intermission), it takes us on a roller-coaster ride punctuated with notes of comedy, poignant drama, horror and poetry.

The cast is superb. Gillis — a regular stage collaborator with MacIvor — feels recognizable as a woman who meets the challenge of Dougie's inexplicable nature with a core of generosity. MacDonald is funny and sad as a daughter who has amalgamated both the depressive tendencies of her father and the compassion of her mother. Moodie takes on the potentially alienating role of Allen with crisp control, but laced with an undercurrent of empathy.

But MacIvor the playwright has written himself a hell of a character, and MacIvor the actor makes the most of it with a great, funny, scary and heartbreaking performance.

After its Winnipeg run, this production of New Magic Valley Fun Town will move to Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, followed by a run at Halifax's Neptune Theatre.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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