The Concessions gets a Flying Start

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For 38 years, Touchstone Theatre has been quintessential in showcasing West Coast playwrights. Their Flying Start program has been giving voice to Canadians who have never been professionally produced since its launch in 2008. The program’s latest production is of Briana Brown’s The Concessions.

Brown’s play, a drama set in a small rural Canadian community, revolves around a precognitive woman named Fay (Emma Slipp) and the murder of someone close to her. This triggers her to question her abilities and consequently, the purpose of her life up until the tragic event. It’s a journey of exploring identity and relationships, as well as one’s duty not just to others, but to oneself.

Taking firmly established, rounded characters portrayed by talented cast members and weaving them into a plot involving tarot card readings and chasing lightning, the play uses supernatural elements to explore follies that result from unexplainable events amongst good people.

Slipp draws audiences in with nothing but tarot cards, two candles, and a bottle of alcohol as she begins her opening monologue seated at a table across from an “empty” seat on a dark stage. The foreboding demeanor with which Slipp opens the play is an intimidating presence as she flips through her tarot cards.

Once they start dropping one-liners, you can’t help but laugh, even though it is no laughing matter.

At the same time it is entertainingly intriguing, as she is able to get some laughs out of the audience. Her versatility is further displayed once she begins interacting with other characters who are actually visible to us.

Whether it is conflict with her husband John (Sebastien Kroon), or Sarah (Jillian Fargey), the town’s radio host, Slipp manages to hold her personas, while complimenting and even accentuating others’. Fargey’s character is a lovely addition to the story as you struggle with whether or not you should take her side. Despite this, she is able to provoke some laughter from the audience.

That’s what The Concessions does well. It puts you in a state of limbo before arriving at concrete impressions. A drama, it nonetheless leaves room for some on-point humour. The story revolves around a murder that has affected close relatives and friends of the victim, but once they start dropping one-liners, you can’t help but laugh, even though it is no laughing matter.

Some of this surprisingly comes from emotional turmoil in the victim’s mother, Julie (Marilyn Norry). Norry perfectly embodies the character of a mother unwilling to move on; the maternal presence on stage probably even outshines roles such as Slipp’s, and the comic relief adds another dynamic to the character. Whether intentional or not, the laughter is a good and surprising juxtaposition against the heavy drama, as it speaks to Brown’s ability to intertwine tones in her play writing.

The characters are well developed, their dialogue is strong, but The Concessions falls flat on the murder plot and resolution. It’s certainly a hook to get people interested in the story, but it eventually lands a bit stale.

It may seem a huge issue to call the plot out as unsatisfying, but when there are such strongly written characters backed with great talent, the need for an event as drastic as a murder isn’t necessary. It’s not an essential catalyst for what the characters experience and find out about themselves and each other.

With the creative liberty one could take with a character that can supposedly see the future, something like death isn’t a very unique problem for them to fail to foresee and prevent (it’s kind of a cliché, actually). Despite this, The Concessions is a wonderful production by the Flying Start program.

The Concessions runs until June 14 at The Firehall Arts Centre. For more information, visit firehallartscentre.ca.