Review: PAINT ME THIS HOUSE OF LOVE At Tarragon Theatre

A prodigal father's return, a Dora-worthy performance, and a polarizing writing technique.

By: May. 08, 2023
Review: PAINT ME THIS HOUSE OF LOVE At Tarragon Theatre

In PAINT ME THIS HOUSE OF LOVE by Chelsea Woolley at the Tarragon Extraspace, a complete sentence is hard to come by. The gaps in the characters' sentences are representative of the missing pieces in their relationships and the truths they can't speak. The play's distinctive voice, (or, rather, its preoccupation with lack of voice), and its complicated web of truths, half-truths, and lies will likely frustrate some and fascinate others.

Cecilia (Jessica B. Hill) lives by herself, depressed and insular, after a romantic failure that has left her incapable of forward motion. Mother Rhondi (Tanja Jacobs), who calls her daughter with such irritating frequency that the Game of Thrones ringtone becomes a play motif, has repeatedly advised her to get over herself and find a roommate. It's a suggestion Cecilia dismisses out of hand, until she's confronted with the most unexpected candidate: her prodigal father Jules (Jeremiah Sparks), showing up for the first time in twenty-five years. Cecilia's memory of Jules is sketchy, but there are a few memories they can agree on; to remind her of others, Jules has brought the letters Cecilia used to send before she stopped writing twenty years prior.

Cecilia's house lies at the core of her possible reconciliation with her father. The detailed, perfect set by Ken MacDonald that juts out into the audience has the warm and worn, but slightly sketchy feeling of an overly-expensive Toronto house past its prime in an up-and-coming neighbourhood. We can see the beginning of a hallway with dated floral wallpaper, lit by a vintage light fixture emitting wan yellow beams, which leads offstage. This house has dirt-smeared doors and baseboards, a forest of plants obscuring the window next to the main door, and a small, two-person side table with an old but working radio on it as the extent of it furniture. It's both lived-in and empty.

Luckily for Cecilia, Jules says, he is a contractor. Offering to stay with her briefly before jetting off to help wealthy clients at one of his worldwide properties, he tells her that in hanging around he can help her refurbish the place into somewhere inviting. Perhaps this will finally make Cecilia's house a home, somewhere she'll actually want to invite others in to share the space. Providing a sense of visual interest and motion, actual changes do take place over the course of the play's two acts, as father and daughter begin to paint the walls.

During the incomplete renovation, Woolley metaphorically implies that what actually needs to be fixed is the hole Jules has left in her life, leading to a fear of abandonment and a shaky relationship with the truth. The other implication, as Cecilia draws pictures on the walls with a paint roller, is that a mere coat of paint isn't enough to fix issues that are structural, caused years ago by an aging framework and careless tenants. "I want him to fix the drywall," an audience member remarked on opening night, but the drywall remains unfixed.

Instead, Cecilia and Jules create their own little world of unreality. As the renovation begins, Hill as Cecilia effectively moves from shock to anger to roleplaying a childhood she never got to have, drawing comfort from the feeling that he father loves her in a way he says her mother hasn't allowed him to. Meanwhile, Sparks gives Jules the feeling of a charming con artist, with enough sincerity in his love for his daughter that we want to trust him, and enough holes in his story and awkward responses that we never totally do.

In the show program, Woolley gives credit to Harold Pinter, master of the pause, as the inspiration behind her show's linguistic quirks. When Cecilia and Jules speak to each other, they trail off, leaving open spaces in the middle or ends of their sentences, dropping words and skimming the surface of conversation. This is an attention-getting technique that, unfortunately, has diminishing returns over the course of two hours.

While the metaphorical intent behind the missing words is clear, the pauses are self-consciously theatrical and don't feel natural to the way people would speak, even in a relationship as damaged as this. The language gaps feel more like they exist for rhythmic purposes than matching the cues of the sentences. While both Hill and Sparks are skilled actors who effectively portray their characters' wide-ranging and conflicting emotions, they can't quite overcome the verbal roadblock even under the otherwise assured direction of Tarragon AD Mike Payette. Basically, you'll either enjoy the rhythm or you won't, which will determine a lot of your enjoyment of the experience as a whole.

The effect of the hesitant rhythm between Cecilia and Jules is compounded by its extreme contrast to the liveliness of Cecilia's mother, Rhondi. In Tanja Jacobs' Dora-worthy performance, Rhondi is a fireball. Talking a mile a minute about anything and everything from her VCR to her fourth husband's bowel movements while Cecilia shaves her legs, she's blunt, domineering, and hilarious.

A superbly well-drawn character, Rhondi is saved from being truly obnoxious in the shading both Woolley and Jacobs give her. Coming from nothing, she's a realist; while she also tries to protect her daughter in ways that might not have been the best ideas, it's clear that she loves Cecilia and wants her to avoid making similar mistakes that Rhondi once made.

It also becomes clear that Rhondi's speech is a verbal shield; she protects herself by "telling it like it is." In her bluntness, she hopes she can steer the conversation towards topics where she was the upper hand, so outlandish that nobody will notice that there are some subjects she doesn't address at all. At the same time, she shows small moments of vulnerability and care that are truly endearing, such as the recurring motif of how she keeps a $10 in her shoe in case of emergency, but is perfectly willing to give it away.

Because Rhondi is such a vibrant character, she overshadows the main pair on the stage. This is the potential drawback to giving one character all of the play's humour; the audience is drawn to that character and the light that humour provides. I found my attention noticeably waning whenever she wasn't present for a long stretch.

Though her style may not be for everyone, Woolley is clearly a talent to watch, displaying a range of abilities in her twisty, complex script. PAINT ME THIS HOUSE OF LOVE gives us a compelling situation, strong characters, and one truly blazing performance, but also the frustration of a conversation that never fully gets started.

Photo of Jessica B. Hill and Jeremiah Sparks by Cylla von Tiedemann



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From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... (read more about this author)


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