In a reworked revival at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, John Mighton's The Little Years has been polished into a gem. Director Chris Abraham has maximized this minimalist drama's power in a production overflowing with thought and compassion.
One of Canadian theatre's most original voices, Mighton is a mathematician in addition to being a playwright. In The Little Years, which first premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1995, he splits his aptitudes between his two main characters.
Growing up in the 1950s, Kate has her interest in physics stifled by her teachers and mother before being sent to secretarial school. She's played as a child by a buoyant Bethany Jillard, then as a calcified adult by a heartbreakingly cold Irene Poole.
Meanwhile, Kate's brother William has his talents as a poet nurtured and becomes a literary star. Despite his worldly success, however, he doesn't get even one actor to play him. Though he never appears on stage, he is constantly present in his absence.
As William blossoms unseen, Kate prematurely withers in full view of the audience, turning bitter and even cruel. "If you think you can walk over hot coals, you can," she says. "It's even easier to convince yourself you can't do something. That's why schools exist."
While it is largely a meditation on lost potential, The Little Years also ponders the nature of time and whether it can really be wasted when we have so little control over its flow and can only live in the present. Ideas we have about our work or influence outliving us are revealed to be not only narcissistic, but also irrational given how we know so little about the movement of the hours.
Time might flow in circles, Kate theorizes, or even backward. It's like the wind, she tries to explain to her mother: We can't see it, only what it touches.
We only make out the outline of William through those he affects, as well, mainly three generations of women: His mother, Alice (Chick Reid), who has unconditional love for her son, but only bile for her daughter; his wife, Grace (Yanna McIntosh), who lives up to her name in her infinite patience for her antisocial sister-in-law, but has less for her husband; and his daughter, Tanya (Jillard again), who is Kate reincarnated in an era more welcoming to women in the sciences.
Most of Mighton's sparkling ideas about time find a physical metaphor in Abraham's production, which lets it creep a petty pace, or speeds it up and even bends it with the help of Kimberly Purtell's lighting design. A series of differently shaped spotlights dance across the stage, diverging and converging. In between scenes, young Kate and older Kate circle each other in them suggesting time is not just a wind but a whirlwind spinning us around insensate.
Mighton's scripts, with elephantine ideas tip-toeing around sparse sentences, often strike me as what would happen if Samuel Beckett tried his hand at writing a Tom Stoppard play. There is an idiosyncratic quality to the dialogue, however, that often seems to emanate from the playwright rather than their characters, particularly in their sudden and awkward gear-shifts into geek speak.
Only in the final scene of The Little Years is this style distracting rather than intriguing, however. And even there, emotion bubbles up between the words unexpectedly as Kate, oppressed by the times, is eventually freed by a change in them. She learns, as Macbeth put it, "time and the hour run through the roughest day."
It helps to have such a fine cast to fill out the characters who must age decades over the course of the play. Poole's Kate is particularly exquisite in her slow shift of sensibility. But it would be churlish not to mention Evan Buliung's charming performance as an egotist of a painter named Roger, whose reputation as the "Barry Manilow of art" changes in meaning over the years. It's not time, but space that prevents me from extolling the cast's virtues further.
The Little Years
- Written by John Mighton
- Directed by Chris Abraham
- Starring Irene Poole
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
The Little Years runs at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Sept. 24.