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The Real World?: One tortured family, two parallel universes

Cara Gee, Cliff Saunders and Matthew Edison in Tarragon Theatre's "The Real World"

Cylla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

When writing intensely personal plays, experienced playwrights have been known to take precautions. Eugene O'Neill insisted that Long Day's Journey Into Night couldn't be published or performed until after his death. A.R. Gurney vetoed productions of The Cocktail Hour in his hometown while his parents were still alive.

Then there are rookies like Claude, the naive young writer in Michel Tremblay's Le Vrai monde ( The Real World?), who not only pens a painful play about his family's shameful secrets, but foolishly gives it to his mother to read.

Her hurt and angry response is the starting point for the great Quebec playwright's probing 1987 drama, getting a 25th-anniversary revival from Tarragon Theatre. As its title suggests, The Real World? is riddled with questions. Tremblay not only ponders the way artists pillage their home life to create fiction, he also asks whether, as we're led to believe, it really results in a greater truth. He wonders what the artist's real motives are and if his version of reality is any more valid than those of the family members he depicts.

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And this being a Tremblay play, he also messes with stage realism. The action is set in a lower-middle-class Montreal home in the mid-1960s, both the period and the shabby gentility perfectly captured by set designer Charlotte Dean. But upon the real events that transpire as Claude (a brooding Matthew Edison) deals with his family, Tremblay superimposes scenes from the offending play Claude has written. So we see simultaneously both the real and fictional versions of his mother Madeleine, his travelling-salesman father Alex and his older sister, the go-go dancer Mariette.

At its most effective, this gimmick gives the ineffable impression of two parallel universes existing at the same time in the same space. It also offers us a chance to compare the two versions of each character – although, in this otherwise powerful production, director Richard Rose and his actors don't always do enough to suggest the differences.

The most striking contrast is between the two Madeleines of Jane Spidell and Meg Tilly. As the real Madeleine, Spidell is the picture of stoicism and restraint. As her theatrical counterpart, who gets to vent the pent-up feelings Claude presumes his mother to have, the mannered Tilly lets loose with the histrionics. She is literally twisted up in pain and rage, at one point even holding an injured arm as if it were Richard III's withered limb. And she screams at her unfaithful husband with the inchoate bark of a woman who hasn't raised her voice in 26 years of marriage.

But while Tony Nappo and Cliff Saunders are both excellent as the piggish, joke-cracking Alex – a philistine boor whom Claude detests – they could be interchangeable. And the real Mariette of Sophie Goulet, who is gawky and brassy, all but eclipses her fictional double, played by Cara Gee as pretty and colourless – perhaps suggesting that her brother has created an idealized picture of her.

The play has its moments of bitter humour and Rose and his designers add to the amusement by introducing the heightened fictional scenes with a dramatic off-stage thunderstorm and the strains of Mendelssohn. The director also subtly emphasizes that we're watching a play-about-a-play by having Claude occasionally step outside the frame of the proscenium stage. Subtly, that is, until a certain startling coup de théâtre, which the company has asked us critics not to reveal.

The Real World? had its English-language premiere at Tarragon in 1988, in the translation by John Van Burek and the late Bill Glassco that's used again here. At the time, it was part of a mini-trend of plays about playwrights and art vs. reality, which included the aforesaid The Cocktail Hour and Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Now, it could as easily speak to the current era of controversial "memoirs" like Running with Scissors. If Tremblay himself ever offended his mother with the dark family dramas of his early career, he certainly made up for it in the 1990s with his affectionate maternal portrait, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. Art sometimes wounds, but it can also heal.

The Real World? runs until June 3.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

The Real World?

  • Written by Michel Tremblay
  • Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco
  • Directed by Richard Rose
  • Starring Matthew Edison, Cara Gee, Sophie Goulet, Tony Nappo, Cliff Saunders, Jane Spidell, Meg Tilly
  • At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto
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