‘Halfway There’ is Norm Foster at his most alluring
Want to laugh until your sides hurt? Want to cry until your heart breaks?
Want to see Canada’s most prolific playwright at the top of his game? Want to see a cast committed to theater as a place of moving and insightful entertainment?
OK, enough with the questions.
Pick up your favorite device and reserve seats for “Halfway There”. This wonderful Norm Foster comedy, with its sly comic invention and generous dose of truth, is one of the best things I’ve seen all year. This includes Broadway, London’s West End and the Stratford Festival.
It’s in Port Dover at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre, the home of Canadian theatrical comedy. But oh my god, it’s so much more than you think.
A few years ago, Foster wrote a play about male bonding called “The Foursome.” Well, now he’s done something even more winning.
With “Halfway There”, he wrote a sad, first-rate love story about women. I don’t think anyone has done this stuff better.
It’s “Steel Magnolias”, “Morning’s At Seven” and “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” all rolled into one. Except for one special thing. It’s uniquely Foster in every way.
Laughs, and believe me there are dozens and dozens of them, punctuate some of the most warm and loving moments I can remember on stage.
Yet this bullshit that makes you laugh until you can’t stop laughing never impinges on the humanity and the truth of the play. Foster’s characters develop naturally from a series of crises and challenges faced by Rita (the wonderful Susan Henley), Vi (the irrepressible Debra Hale) and Mary Ellen (Melodee Finlay, once Queen of Lighthouse Comedies of Port Dover, who is thankfully back with a rematch).
These three adorable women are a triumvirate to be reckoned with. Their performances are bristling with a kind of exquisite energy and truth that radiates from the stage like a warm embrace and a big kiss.
These three friends face the loss in their lives with a willingness to ignore the grief and the strength to hold on to what makes them strong. They’re so real you want to join in their group hugs on stage, grab their hands and take them all out for a drink and a fried fish at the vintage Erie Beach Hotel in Dover.
They aren’t the center of the story here, but they are the rolling heart of Foster’s wonderful play. They are the ones who give her her joy, her laughter and her tender moments of feminine complicity, moments that transcend the sometimes embarrassing and painful annoyances of life.
We are in a small restaurant in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia. This is the place that is halfway to the North Pole. Now you get the title of the play, right? But that’s only a small part of what it really means. More on that later.
In this evocative place – where waitress Janine Babineau, played cleverly by Kristen Da Silva, dreams of finding true love and getting the better of life – between handsome Sean Merritt, who is terrific as a visiting doctor in town during a month or two, working at the local hospital. And isn’t he just about perfect in a calm, no-frills way. Maybe he’s what Janine is looking for, someone to give meaning to her life.
Foster allows these two reluctant lovers to dance a little, until they finally dance together, of course, close and personal, right there on the patchwork floor of the small restaurant.
Da Silva and Brad Austin are so perfect as Foster’s supposed lovers that we’ve got our backs from the first time the likeable Sean walks through the restaurant door.
But then, that’s the secret of Foster’s play, isn’t it? We support all of these characters. We want them to find happiness. We laugh when they shrug their shoulders at life, and we pull out the handkerchief when life kicks them in the rear.
“Halfway There” is just that kind of charming piece, old-fashioned and truthful, warm and wise, funny and touching, and never in a contrived or tedious way.
Like Foster, Finlay, Henley and Hale are at the top of their game, making every moment of this glorious game touching.
This kind of acting only happens when a strong director is at the helm, working some sort of behind-the-scenes miracle that elevates everything to a measure of art. Jane Spence does it here. She is of course encouraged by the minimal but evocative decor by Beckie Morris, the costumes by Alex Amini and the moody lighting by Chris Malkowski.
We’re not just halfway with this one. No indeed. We are on our way back.
Who: Lighthouse Festival Theater
Where: 247 Main Street Port Dover
When: Until July 16
Tickets: Regular admission, $44, students and Equity members, $15. Call 1-888-779-7703 or visit lighthousetheatre.com
Protocols: Optional masks