Iron maidens

CAST IRON by Lisa Codrington, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with Alison Sealy-Smith. Presented by Nightwood in association with Obsidian.

CAST IRON by Lisa Codrington, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with Alison Sealy-Smith. Presented by Nightwood in association with Obsidian at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Runs to March 13, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $16-$33, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN

Not all hauntings take place in spooky houses. In a modern Winnipeg retirement home, Libya Atwell relives her youthful memories of growing up in Barbados. In the process, she fills us in on a striking set of relatives who provided her with joy, pain and a few terrors.

The title of Lisa Codrington ‘s appealing Cast Iron refers to a frying pan that’s useful as both cooking tool and weapon, though it also suggests Libya’s powerful determination. Libya is forced to recall family history when her nephew Winston visits from Barbados for information about his mother, Gracie. While at first she tries to get rid of him and ignore his request, Libya slowly opens up about her girlhood days until she’s possessed by those memories.

The result, which moves back and forth between past and present, is a fine piece of theatre, especially in the hands of actor Alison Sealy-Smith and director ahdri zhina mandiela . The two know exactly how to give the piece both light laughs and intensely tragic moments.

For the first few minutes of the production, in fact, there’s not a word spoken. Sealy-Smith begins with her back to the audience, finally turning and engaging in simple activities that suggest much about the impassive, rigid 78-year-old whose life is bounded by routine, stress and nerves.

But then Codrington’s narrative and words give the actor a chance to parade before us a dozen or so characters, all beautifully characterized by vocal colours and physical gestures. There’s the girlish, playful, demanding Gracie the flirtatious, sexy James, with his hand always on his crotch nervous, frail granny Stacy Mae and Libya’s laconic, gambling father, Santiford. Always hovering in the background is the Red Woman, a semi-mythic figure who is butcher, abortionist and bogeywoman.

Sealy-Smith demonstrates an impeccable skill at creating distinct figures, shifting from one to the other with a change in stance or a turn of hand.

There are times when the writing could be more emotionally involving, but Cast Iron plays impressively with the drama and comedy of life. Though specific in locale, it touches on universal subjects, notably power games tied to gender, race and class.

Michelle Ramsay ‘s lighting and Richard Lee and Alejandra Nunez ‘s soundscape transport us easily to the warm Caribbean, and set designer Camellia Koo surprises us with a stunning moment of theatrical magic.

A tale of how the past won’t let go of the present, and also a story of escape and expiation, this Cast Iron is solid.

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