Review: WITHROW PARK at Tarragon Theatre

Dramedy about not going gentle into that good night says you can't take it with(row) you

By: Dec. 10, 2023
Review: WITHROW PARK at Tarragon Theatre

Inside one of the houses surrounding Withrow Park, the three senior residents watch the goings-on outside with a mixture of interest and fear. Neighbours known only by characteristics wander by outside, but nothing breaches the fortress until there’s a knock at the door. As their lives of relative complacency have been recently upended, a sudden connection to the outside world throws the three insular lives further into chaos.

In WITHROW PARK, Morris Panych’s new play at Tarragon Theatre, we see a view into a neighbourhood a little less than 7 kilometres away from where we sit. Panych’s script is quippy and fun with a philosophical bent about aging, mortality, and the ability to start again at any point, but just like its characters, finds it hard to achieve balance between those two states.

Janet (Nancy Palk) and Arthur (Benedict Campbell) are ex-spouses who haven’t had time to really consider their break-up after decades together. Their healing process hasn’t even really started, because they still live in the same house. Still raw and confused, they both have problems seeing things clearly. For the take-charge Janet, used to being the strong one and running the household, it’s a degenerative illness that is taking her vision. She adopts an increasingly caustic and imperious demeanour to hid the fact that she’s newly vulnerable in many ways, no longer desired by her husband, and facing a life far different than she planned where she’s going to have to rely more and more on others.

Arthur, a former schoolteacher, has trouble seeing and understanding himself. A few short months ago, he came to the realization that he was gay, had a fling with another man that he thought was love, and got unceremoniously dumped, only to find that he couldn’t undo the harm he’d caused or go back the the way things were. He’s adrift in his new identity, so wrapped up in finding himself that he can’t recognize the extent of the losses he’s caused others.

Completing the triad is Janet’s sister Marion (Corrine Koslo), whose interest in dating Arthur so many years ago brought him into the sisters’ lives, while he only had eyes for Janet. Marion, a scatterbrain who’s always been taken care of by her sister, has her eyes on the prize of having agency in her exit from this existence. Stirring the pot between her sister and former brother-in-law, she talks frankly and with good humour about her nebulous but coalescing suicide plans.

There’s always something fun about watching three talented, venerable actors tear a verbal strip off each other, and, under Jackie Maxwell’s direction, Palk, Campbell, and Koslo do just that, bantering frantically as if encouraged by the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Koslo is a particular standout, the daffy fulcrum balancing Palk’s spit acid and Campbell’s defensive whine. Maxwell largely steps back and lets them do their thing, but contrasts the large stretches of banter with moments where time stops portentously and the characters stare at us accusingly, backed by the strains of piano music.

This seemingly random, archly surreal element is backed up by the fourth character, the mysterious Simon (Jonathan Sousa), who knocks on the door one day, brightly introducing himself to Janet as being new in the neighbourhood. This small action seems a major disruption to the trio of residents, who are largely used to interacting with their neighbours through binoculars, staring at the denizens of the park and making disparaging comments about their cellphones, boyfriends, and dogs. Simon’s attempt to make a neighbourly connection stirs up many conflicting emotions, from Janet’s attraction to the fear of letting an unknown, handsome but slightly rumpled man into the inner sanctum of the living room.

That’s the thing, though—the whole play is deliberately set in the living room to comment on the fact that the characters aren’t really living. They’re in stasis, adrift, somewhere between the excitement of the second life retirement brings and simply staring down the inexorable march of time into death.

When WITHROW PARK works, it works; the game cast plays off each other like a multi-ball round on a pinball machine, and some of the one-liners, like one that compares Buddhism to a recycling bin, are real winners. At the same time, it suffers from also feeling somewhat adrift between the poles of “quippy comedy of manners” and “surreal philosophical art film,” particularly in the second half when things get a bit supernatural. It’s a worthy gamble by the playwright that I couldn’t quite buy into; the reality of the world of Withrow Park is so grounded that the comparative sketchiness of the surrealism feels more unmoored than exciting, a great concept that doesn’t feel fully realized.

Ken MacDonald’s design for the interior of the house, a large bay window covered by outside plants that suggest the characters are hiding behind a blind to survey the urban jungle, reminded me of a lovely upscale version of his set for PAINT ME THIS HOUSE OF LOVE, expansive and genteel where the other was claustrophobic and shabby.

The more affluent look of the attractive set design, in some ways, actually works against the success of the show’s bid for our sympathies; Millennials and Gen Z viewers might find it hard to connect with the problems of these three older, comfortably retired folks during the first act, while they mentally calculate how much their house would sell for and how unlikely younger generations are to be able to afford in their golden years the relative comfort these characters possess. The presence of Simon and his mysterious secret does a lot to mitigate this as a secondary “way in” to the play, as he speaks both respectfully and incredulously about the people who own the home while they worry about others taking what they have.

How these possessions stack up against a pointless existence, though, is part of the point—you might as well seize the dying moment, says the show, because you can’t take Withrow with you.

Photo of Benedict Campbell, Johnathan Sousa, Corrine Koslo and Nancy Palk by Cylla von Tiedemann