Michel Tremblay has mommy issues. The more of his work that I see, the more I recognize the loving but fraught tension that drives young writers to write about their mothers. In the beautiful, hopeful and inventive For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, Tremblay recreates his mother in exuberant, true, and positive detail. In The Real World? he examines a more negative incarnation through the eyes of fictional son/playwright Claude. In both plays, the main character adores his mother; in The Real World?, he rejects the way his beloved mother chooses to live her life. The effect is dark, confusing and unsettling. It’s Tremblay, so the form is, of course, innovative and the dialogue crisp (even in translation by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco). But The Real World? has none of the magic of the Tremblay exploration of motherhood that I love so much (For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again) and while that is very purposeful, I’ve never believed (as many people do) that dark is always more profound than light, so I left the theatre a little disappointed in Canada’s best playwright.
No matter how dark a tragedy, it is always made more tragic by the moments of hope that show the potential for happiness the characters just can’t reach. The Real World? has those moments, but they are undermined by the end of the play when the hope that maybe Claude’s real life is not as dark as he imagines disappears and his father is framed as an absolute villain instead of a hated, ambiguous figure. Tremblay leaves the door open for Claude ‘s imagination to be running away with him, but the atrocities he presents as absolute fact are so horrendous that the decision becomes: believe him or run the risk of turning your back on a heinous crime and being wrong. I liked the idea that the father Claude hates is turned into a villain in his play, but I think that concept is more interesting and more honest if the embellishment is in Claude’s filter and not in some truth his mother Madeleine and sister Mariette have been repressing. Again, there’s that possibility, but I wish the door was left maybe a little bit more open.
The production of Tremblay’s play currently on stage at Tarragon is generally pretty strong (though on opening night the set did begin to literally fall apart- maybe it was a metaphor?). Matthew Edison is particularly effective as tortured playwright/judgmental son (and Tremblay proxy?) Claude. He’s got the screwy self righteous indignation of any writer whose life heavily influences his work (meaning all of them) and the way he uses his writing to right the wrongs he sees in his family’s behaviour is oh-so-honest. Sophie Goulet is exuberant and carefree as Mariette 1 (the real one) while Cara Gee is dour and haunted as her fictional counterpart. The Madeleines (Claude’s long-suffering mother) are closer variations. The wig on Claude’s maternal creation (Meg Tilly, so great in Bomb Girls) is a little neater, her dress a little prettier, as she speaks the words and takes the steps Claude believes his real mother should. Said real mother is a fascinatingly still shadow of the strong-willed Tilly version, played with self-reflective hurt by a wonderful Jane Spidell. Costume designer Charlotte Dean did a wonderful job creating two sets of character looks- one just slightly more colourful, more ideal- and the cast funhouse-mirrors each other excellently. There’s a great defensiveness to Tony Nappo’s possibly-innocent Alex and a desperate violence to Cliff Saunders’ definitely-culpable one.
The trick of the play lies with Mariette, however. The nothing-alike-ness of the actresses who portray her gives light to the two options of Claude’s world. He’s written the characters of his play-within-a-play as brutally honest, airing their every issue no matter how painful (in Mariette’s case, she becomes a miserable figure when she otherwise is determined not to be). His real family, on the other hand, is either strong and silent in her sadness (Madeleine) or defiantly happy (Mariette). Claude’s assertion is that his fictional world deals with reality when his real life does not- hence the titular question mark, asking what is really The Real World?.