by Caleigh Crow
“From what I’m seeing from the actors, it’s truthful, it’s unbearably truthful. It’s really hard to watch,” says Dale Hayes of her production, “It’s like watching a car accident, you want to look away, but you can’t.”
It’s odd to promote one’s work by declaring it hard to watch, but given the production, it is fitting. Dale is the artistic director of d² productions, whose latest, Late Company by Jordan Tannahill, is as unsettling as it is commonplace. Inspired by a real-life Canadian case of homophobia and cyberbullying pushed to its most tragic end, the play takes place at the Shaun-Hastings’ residence, a home permeated with grief. Debora and Michael Shaun-Hastings’ son, Joel, took his own life after a series of increasingly violent and homophobic encounters with his classmates both online and in school. The Shaun-Hastings have invited one of these classmates, Joel, and his parents, Bill and Tamara Dermot, over for what is supposed to be an evening of reconciliation that, even in this synopsis, is plainly doomed.
The two families created by playwright Jordan Tannahill are almost vulgarly honest representations, and they tend to poke at parts of North American cultural foibles we’d like to think we’ve left behind in favour of an inclusive future. Bill and Tamara Dermot exhibit behaviours that would make any millennial worth their salt cringe – strict adherence to ‘traditional’ familial and gender roles underlie Bill’s philosophy, and Tamara’s kindness is superficial at best, something she has in common with Debora, but that’s where the commonality ends. While a certain defensive tone underscores Tamara’s dialogue, Debora’s white-hot rage is barely contained by her polite conversation, while surly Curtis and Michael, a conservative politician, just want the evening to come to a quick conclusion, regardless of resolution, for their own sakes. None of the five want to be pinned with anything, and they’ve all got their reasons for doing and saying what they do. They’re playing everyone’s favourite dinner party game ‘Who’s to Blame For Joel’s Death’ and of course there can be no winners here.
The story is brought to life by a cast of five and being truthful on stage is that much more challenging when your character is less than admirable, though it is a sign of great writing. According to Dale, the key to portraying characters is to “justify everything that comes out of their mouths” even if it’s somewhat distasteful because “the script is so truthful.”
The Late Company cast features Helena Levitt, Sterling Mawhinney, Anthony Schuller, Leigh Ann Taylor, and Nick Walker, minted Montreal performers all. Dale says of her cast, “I have great actors who have great instincts. They are so wonderful, they did their research, they understand their characters, the relationships. These are five very different characters and they’ve developed them fully.”
Dale deliberately chose a small and intimate venue, the MiniMain at MainLine Theatre, and the actors responded accordingly. “Once they got into that room and they realised there’s only 43 seats,” Dale explains, “you can really see the spit coming out of their mouths now. It’s almost like film, because you’re so close.”
The themes of the play will be both familiar and challenging to anyone, across identities and circumstances. As a former educator, I know these issues are played out in schools and online in Canada every day. When it comes to young people suffering, we’d all like easy answers and a concrete solution, but the reality of solving this crisis is very complicated, and as an honest play, there aren’t many answers to be found in Late Company. This is one of the strengths of the show. “Don’t expect a resolution,” cautions Dale, “nothing important can be resolved in an hour and a half.”
So, what can the audience expect? “I’m just hoping that for an hour and a half the audience are engaged, interested, and surprised, pleased, and they want to start a conversation, they want to talk about this,” Dale says.
In the program, audience members can find Canadian statistics and resources that underscore the need for this play today, and the need for conversation and action around these issues. “I’m hoping the audience will go home and kiss their kid, call their mother, call their brother – even if they’ve never had any experiences with bullying, I hope they’ll just be touched by the play.” She continues, “To think that these people – inspired by a true story – it’s real. This really happens. I want people to understand that it’s real life, and it’s happening around us, and they have to take action.”
Our conversation turns emotional when I ask Dale where hope is to be found in this play, if anywhere. She mentions a quote from Anne Frank’s diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” She pauses and allows the thought to flutter above our heads. “That just makes me want to cry,” she says, and follows her train of thought. “What causes a person to do these things? Why are some kids mean and some kids not mean? Or are we all mean, and we just have to learn not to be?” While there might not be room for a resolution in Late Company, revelation is possible for both the audience and the characters. Dale sums it up thus, “I really do believe that people are good, we just have to ask ourselves, what is my good?”
One of the places d² productions has found their good is in the work they do, and Dale has a lot to say about the privilege of being a theatre maker. “I’m so grateful for what we do, I’m so grateful for being able to create work for actors in Montréal, and I’m grateful that we are able to put on a play and have people come with their hard-earned cash to pay to come and see us,” Dale says. “What a privilege and a responsibility that is, and none of us take that lightly. You can’t have an off night because there’s someone there who paid their $15.” With low ticket prices, Dale is hoping to encourage people who have never seen a play before to give live theatre a chance. She very aptly notes, “Unless you’ve seen a play, you don’t know what a play is. The magic of walking into a theatre and just being there in the moment and watching these people spit out their dialogue and their emotions – it’s wonderful, I hope that we can get more people interested in theatre by keeping our prices low.”
Late Company is playing at MainLine Theatre until November 19. For a more detailed schedule and ticketing information – the show has been selling out so get your tickets in advance! – click here.