IN GABRIEL'S KITCHEN by Salvatore Antonio, directed by David Oiye, with Marc Bendavid, Toni Ellwand, Paul Fauteux, Michael Miranda and Kristopher Turner. Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 9) and runs to March 26, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$29. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
Hard school assignments are best forgotten once they're passed in.
But one of Salvatore Antonio's most tortuous class projects at the National Theatre School has turned into a mainstage script premiering tonight at Buddies.
"I hated writing," he concedes, "and I fell back on a series of exercises to find a starting point. One was to create a hall of welcome and free my imagination to fill it.
"The first image I got was a kitchen whose walls I could see through, and in it was a gigantic table. Eventually, I saw a guy in a parka with his back to me, and offstage I could hear a clanging that I realized was being made by his mother, who was wearing mourning and a floral apron."
In Gabriel's Kitchen became the story of a close-knit Italian-Canadian family torn apart when the teenage Gabriel, the family's pride and joy, admits that he's having a relationship with another man. The family's reactions lead to Gabriel's suicide.
"We can't know what's in someone's head before he takes a drastic step," offers Antonio, an actor who's currently performing in Rosa Laborde's Léo. "All we can know are the act and the consequences. It was curious for me to put myself in Gabriel's position and see what happens if he jumps off into the light rather than having the darkness push him off - that he acts from a position of power rather than despair."
The short play triggered by Antonio's first images moved director Bill Glassco, founder of the Tarragon, among others. But it was coincidental that five years later Antonio was offered a slot in the Tarragon Spring Arts Fair and revised the work.
Ellen-Ray Snow, who performed in it, gave it to Buddies' David Oiye, who took Antonio into the company's Playwrights Unit and, along with Ed Roy, fostered the script into a full-length piece.
"I'd never in a million years have thought that I'd be having a mainstage debut," says the writer in genuine amazement.
He's tooled the play with care, giving the five characters - Gabriel, parents Paolo and Concetta, older brother Marco and Gabriel's friend Matt - strong motivations and believable relationships.
"Each of them views Gabriel's action differently. His mother takes ownership of her son's deed, his father is in free fall and won't look at what happened, while his brother tries to make the parents accept their share of responsibility. It's Matt who turns out to be the survivor."
What about the possibility of the family turning into stereotypes? That could be the case for Concetta, the good mother who's constantly pushing food on her family.
"Concetta isn't a humorous stereotype but a mother who's coping with life's problems and tending to her family," answers Antonio, whose TV work includes This Is Wonderland, Paradise Falls and At The Hotel. "Whether she's pushing pasta or chicken soup, the underlying thing is care."
Antonio's equally clear about the budding relationship between Gabriel and Matt.
"In any first relationship, gay or straight, the thing that's intoxicating is that you get attention that's not required by obligation, not owed you by family or teachers. The other person chooses to be with you, looks at you as if you were a work of art, makes you think anything is possible."
Currently, in Léo, Antonio plays a young gay Chilean attracted to a boyhood friend.
"No wonder I'm so tired right now," he laughs.
Well, let's also add that having your first big play open when you're performing in another production gives you two equally important focuses.
But Antonio knew he couldn't perform in the Buddies show after being both writer and actor in Load, a 2005 Rhubarb! piece.
"I wanted to see what it would be like to perform my own writing, and now I don't think it's possible. I can't show up as an actor to a scene I've written. I feel that there are two people in one body, with the author rewriting the dialogue or taking notes, when the actor's supposed to be responding to others onstage."