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In this dysfunctional family, happiness is suspect

Maria Vacratsis and Maev Beaty in "The Happy Woman"

Guntar Kravis

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Happy Woman

Written by Rose Cullis

Directed by Kelly Thornton

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Starring Maev Beaty and Barbara Gordon

A Nightwood Theatre production

At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto

Margaret, the self-proclaimed happy woman at the centre of Rose Cullis's insubstantial new play, maintains a pleasant frame of mind by ignoring the bad and focusing on the good.

So let's give it a try.

There are a few strong group scenes in The Happy Woman – for instance, when Christian brings his pregnant wife Stasia over to have dinner with his sister and mother. Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet), waddling about like a terrified little duck, is extremely anxious about giving birth, certain that something is wrong with the baby inside her.

Instead of soothing Stasia, Christian's sister Cassie – a jealous string-bean who revels in uncomfortable truth-telling – notes that there are a million things that can go wrong with a pregnancy.

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Observing this unfolding dinner disaster is Margaret, played by Barbara Gordon, cheery and distant – not due to drugs or alcohol but instead to a major dose of denial.

This not-so-happy family's dysfunction stems from a dark secret in the past. I'm not even sure I need to be coy about it, since director Kelly Thornton's production gives the game away early on. Here's a clue: It's a hackneyed theatrical plot-pusher that rhymes with sin-fest.

The family also struggles with the memory of Margaret's husband, who is dead and therefore not on stage to defend himself from his children's accusations that he was a cranky tyrant who messed them up.

Margaret remembers him as a saint, but of course she would. When Cassie tries to reveal to her the fact that she's been boinking her brother, Margaret shrugs the news off with only mild bafflement, as if she's just been told her children loved Da Vinci's Inquest.

Margaret's denial, alas, is not contagious. And while Cullis's family scenes have a certain vitality to them, it's difficult to forget that most of the play is made up of monologues that wander off aimlessly.

Many of them are delivered by a cynical, all-seeing neighbour named BellaDonna, who is there to contrast sunny Margaret. But while Maria Vacratsis does a charming curmudgeon, her BellaDonna nevertheless seems extraneous. Much of The Happy Woman seems that way – it feels puffed up to two acts.

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Cassie, played with a coiled, quirky anger by Maev Beaty, is the most dramatically interesting of the characters, a performance artist who steps out with married men. Her acts, however, are deathly dull, and we are subjected to them.

The other performances are solid but lost in a play that goes nowhere (beyond the incest cul-de-sac) at a leisurely pace, an impression cemented by Joelysa Pankanea's bouncy-carousel background music.

To try to be positive again, Denyse Karn's brightly coloured set is attractive, like a children's drawing brought to life. (Later, it appears in miniature in one of Cassie's performances, leading to the possibility that the play is one of her aimless acts.)

But coming off her fine production of The Penelopiad, Thornton stumbles in finding the right tone for Cullis's play. She overuses a directorial trick where characters speak to each other while looking straight out at the audience; it misses the strengths in Cullis's writing, which has promise but little craft to it.

As to Cullis'sunderlying question, whether happiness and honesty can coexist, it's one I wonder all the time.

The Happy Woman runs until March 24.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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