GROWING PAINS

If it were television, it might be a soap opera; if it were an old movie, it might be what they used to call a "chick flick." Joanna M. Glass's Artichoke is all about a sensitive woman caught between a male world and an irrational morality that keeps her down on the farm. The play might have been a bore, were it not for the variety of odd characters that inhabit it. And if the South Suburban Theatre Company production has its dull moments, the problem lies in the plot construction, not with the characters or the actors playing them.

The story unfolds in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan sometime during the 1980s. Two old bachelors sit and read the newspaper, then gossip about the sexual scandals of British celebrities--from the royal family to politicians who got kinky in awful public ways. But celebrity sex is finally less interesting than local shenanigans, and the old boys turn their enthusiastic (rather than licentious) attention to the farm next door and the exploits of Margaret and Walter.

Margaret and Walter were happy for a year after their marriage until the well went dry and Walter employed a water witch to locate another site. Walter and the witch enjoyed each other's company too much, and nine months later a baby girl was left in a laundry basket on the doorstep. Margaret took in the baby and raised the strange child lovingly as her own, but Walter was banished to the smokehouse, where he slept for the next fourteen years. Meanwhile, Margaret's father moved in. By the time we meet this dysfunctional clan, we realize how silly the whole premise is.

Then Professor Gibson MacFarland arrives. A childhood sweetheart of Margaret's, he was orphaned at eight and brought up by her father. He and Margaret still love each other, and even though Gibs is useless on the farm, the crises of love he creates makes an uneasy peace among the warring factions possible. Kip Yates may be a bit young for the role, but he's a good choice--sweet, melancholy and a little lost.

All of Glass's male characters are drawn a bit broadly. Jake (played with skilled comic naivete by Todd Peckham) and Archie (elegant buffoonery from Dan Connell), the two old bachelor neighbors, may be a bit cartoonish, but their cultivated language and friendly feeling for their neighbors is unusual: They're not hypocrites, prudes or lechers. The lives of other people are just so much more interesting than their own that they can't help but observe.

Young Megan Flaherty gives a delightful performance as the eccentric daughter, Lily Agnes. The character's precocious language is always a mouthful, but Flaherty's graceful solemnity is touched by whimsy. Lily wears a hat at all times to help contain her, lest she "run naked in the wind muttering gibberish"--the magical legacy, no doubt, of her natural mother. The other characters think she's not right in the head, but the audience knows she's simply wiser than her years. Gene Gillette as Margaret's old dad dodders convincingly for a young man while Clint Heyn gives husband Walter a kind heart under a hard edge of resentment.

All the action revolves around Margaret, and Michelle A. Grimes lends the absurd story emotional weight with her anguished, hungry performance. Margaret breaks down her husband's peculiar pride to get to the man inside--her anger is righteous, her reasoning more intuitive than rational. Grimes plays her with seething sorrow but without self-pity.

The first act moves slowly--too much background, not enough action--but things pick up considerably after that as the characters reveal more and more about their internal struggles. We understand why Margaret can't leave the farm and why Gibson must--and how the person we love most in the world can still be the wrong choice. However, Glass's grasp of the emotional landscape is far from complete. Shared work can indeed form an important link between people, but it isn't love. So the suggestion of rekindling Margaret and Walter's marriage is unconvincing.

A terrific set by Kathleen Widomski and fine lighting by Richard H. Pegg help create a mood of down-home realism. But in the end, despite the good performances and the quirky characters, the play itself is just too thin. You don't really see the soul of Canada here, or even the wonderful workings of the human imagination. A little more reality and a lot more meaning is called for down on the farm.

 
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