A Christmas wish for stability, sanity and love

PLEASE NOTE: Leaving town for two weeks, I was grateful to be able to review a non-public dress rehearsal of The Soul Menders, on Nov. 15, before I went. As per What’s Up Yukon policy, I will not be commenting on flaws that dress rehearsals usually find, then fix.

(3 out of 5 stars)

Like a persistent, earnest, slightly outrageous friend, The Soul Menders wins you over through sheer determination.

The story of Patti Flather’s new romantic Christmas comedy centers on Bea, a woman trying to raise her high-school son alone after her divorce. Through her attempts at dating and moving on with her life, we meet several lonely people, all trying to connect before and during the Christmas holidays.

The set by Dean Eyre is inspiring and spare. It’s a walk-in advent calendar, which doubles as a practical place to put props and make scene changes.

I found myself excited to see what panel of the set they would open next. Director Chris McGregor pulls back sets, costume, even décor, to allow the characters to shine, and this is a good choice.

Bea (Suzanne Ristic) is not a woman I liked at first, but she is an interesting person and fascinating to watch. Flather has written her as a woman who seems to be obsessed with her own menopause. She talks openly about it on dates, with her son and with her hairdresser.

You can watch the men in her life recoil a bit at her frankness. It is this quality in Bea, her “take all of me” attitude, that both pushes you away and pulls you near.

In her opening scenes, she seems frantic to try and recapture something she’s lost. She can be brutally frank, bossy, passionate and, at times, wistful. I always believed Ristic knew who Bea was – even when Bea didn’t.

Bea is given the majority of choices in the play. It’s up to her alone to choose between Erik and Gordon, two men she tries to date. With one, she finds herself exhilarated, challenged, hopeful. With the other, she seems more relaxed, but afraid of eventual boredom.

We know which one is right for her, but the play is about Bea discovering that. The others help Bea find her way.

Gordon (Roy Ness) is a likable guy … a bit quirky. He talks to things he probably shouldn’t be talking to – inanimate objects and dead people.

He has a daughter (Krystal Dawn) who has withdrawn emotionally from the world, even as she parties through it. They navigate a world changed by the death of Gordon’s wife.

Erik (Doug Mayr) plays a man who is still reeling from the loss of his wife through divorce. He has done all the requisite therapy, though, that one might do to get through this. He sincerely cares about Bea’s feelings and their dating relationship. He walks around believing in his own healing, even if the wounds are still raw.

Stephen (Ben Barrett-Forrest) is Bea’s son, tossed between two families and two houses now. He is trying to help his mother survive the holidays, though not many of his ways are legal or welcome.

Neda (Sophia Marnik) is Bea’s Iranian hairdresser, trying to find out how to keep family together despite distance.

The actors have solid comic timing and there are many laugh-out-loud moments that I predict will grow during production. It also has some very honest moving moments in it, specifically between Lizzie and Gordon who hit the right notes of a family numb with grief.

I think, though, that some of the 40 scenes are much too short to convey what Flather wanted to, especially those with Neda, whose story line actually complements the major story even though her resolution seems under-developed.

Neda is a much stronger woman, at times, than Bea. And I care for her more. And I care for Gordon and for Eric and for Lizzie; they are hurting and they need to be cared for. But this is not their play. It is Bea’s.

Bea is not written to be cared for. She is written to overcome.

I’m still having arguments with Bea, in my head, even as I write this. I’m not upset with the man she chose, but I think the odd man out gets short shrift by her. I think she’s allowed to do things to people to fulfill her needs while others are those who get their needs met (or unmet) in the wake of Bea.

Holy cow, the things Bea says! The things she does! Some might see her as foolish, selfish or desperate. Or, is she just determined and bold and certain? This is the enigma of Bea … and the fascination with her. There’s a little soul-rending during her soul-mending.

I didn’t quite buy the ending with a character’s revelation. Is this character capable of this kind of wisdom, this kind of construction? This seems forced, as if everyone, including the audience, needed this to help make sense of what’s happened. I’m not sure that this roller-coaster Christmas needs a tidy, aphoristic ending.

Christmas is full of complex feelings, messy relationships and strange gifts.

In the end, I felt touched by these memorable characters … Bea, too, because even the most time-battered Christmas ornaments get their spots on the tree.

And when that tree lights up, you can’t help but smile.

The Soul Menders is at the Guild Theatre until Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors.

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