ALICE'S AFFAIR by Susan Coyne, directed by Eda Holmes, with Martha Burns, David Jansen, Brooke Johnson, Daniel Kash, Nancy Palk and Brenda Robins. Tarragon (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (April 24), opens Tuesday (April 26) and runs to May 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except April 23) 2:30 pm. $27-$33, Sunday pwyc-$15, stu/srs $18-$27. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Hauntings don't always involve spooky houses and sinister soundtracks.
Alice, the middle-class, comfortably settled mother and housewife in Susan Coyne's Alice's Affair, has more than her share of ghostly visitations, both in dreams and waking life.
It's not just that her great-grandmother was a well-known medium and a friend of the occult-inclined William James and Houdini. Alice is also visited by the spirit of her dead creative writing prof, a strange - or maybe, on second thought, not so strange - source of artistic and personal inspiration.
"The piece is about a writer haunted by her own story and characters, particularly the person she fears the most," says director Eda Holmes. "We all have critics of different sorts, and for Alice it's Gregory, that recently deceased writing teacher.
"Susan's playing with the confusing relationship between student and mentor. For me, the ambiguity of the relationship is fascinating, how it spills over into an author's process and haunts the writer in so many different ways."
Holmes compares Coyne's work to Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author, in which the six figures exist apart from the playwright, and each side dips into the life of the other.
In a wintry cottage setting, surrounded by old school friends, Alice works through her creative and everyday relationship problems. The director argues, though, that the setting is really Alice's consciousness.
"That's the point that makes the work universal, not just about a group of people with a specific background. We all have a relationship that's stopped us from developing into ourselves. The play talks about how to face and deal with it."
Holmes, one of the cleverest directors around, has given Toronto audiences some first-rate shows during the past several seasons, including Trout Stanley and Helen's Necklace.
Many people, though, don't know that she's also directed school productions, notably at Ryerson, where she's presented fine stagings of Mad Forest, Big Love and Red Noses.
"Perry Schneiderman's been my mentor there, giving me a chance to work on shows I'd never get to do in a professional situation because of cast size or material.
"In both worlds, though, my aim is to set up a playground in which the actors can create. Ultimately, all the same kinds of questions get asked. It's true, though, that in the school situation I'm more hands-on, helping students understand how the text is a map for the creation of human behaviour."
Holmes's Ryerson students will certainly appreciate one of the elements of Alice's Affair - the role of now-defunct punk group the Ramones in saving Alice's sanity.
"I love that Susan's embraced the idea of the band. I think she's chosen them because they were truly a lawless intrusion into the music scene, punks before the punk scene existed. They were messy and loud and couldn't play at first - their rhythmic counting before a song has nothing to do with the rhythm of the song itself - but what's important is their youthful vitality and fearlessness.
"That's the spirit she's given to Alice as a tool and a power, that sense of pure beginner-ness. It's a neat contrast to the narrow, white world the characters are stuck in."