HOW IT WORKS written and directed by Daniel MacIvor, with Tom Barnett, Caroline Gillis, Fiona Highet and Bethany Jillard. Presented by the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews through Tuesday (November 13), opens Wednesday (November 14) and runs to December 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except November 10) 2:30 pm. $32-$38, Sunday pwyc-$17, previews $19, stu/srs discounts. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
How do you feel when you meet your ex's new partner? Angry, uncomfortable, wishing you were somewhere else?
In Daniel MacIvor's How It Works, actor Fiona Highet has to sort through all those reactions as the divorced Donna, whose former husband Al has started dating Christine, a woman with secrets. Complicating matters is that Al and Donna's daughter Brooke has a drug problem.
"And what does Donna do?" laughs Highet. "She makes the first move to connect with Christine because her daughter's life is on the line.
"But it's not easy sorting through all the emotions linked to her love for Brooke. She also has a recently severed marriage and the guilt that a parent feels when there's a divorce."
Highet points out How It Works is more like MacIvor's play Marion Bridge than his solo shows or scripts like A Beautiful View or You Are Here (which she has performed).
"Those are conceptual pieces, while How It Works and Marion Bridge are traditional narratives, what I'd call 'play plays.'
"I find all of his works filled with heart. There's comedy there, too, but not the kind that requires a witty actor. He's the one who writes the funny lines; what you have to do is find the compassion at the centre of the play, and the humour works."
MacIvor also provides a subtext that lets actors explore the various emotional strains beneath the words.
"Daniel's writing is spare, but that allows you to present his characters in a lot of different ways, which is exciting for a run. What I know now about Donna might not be interesting in a week, and there's room for my changing views of her."
In the script, Donna certainly changes. At the start of the play both Al and Brooke keep her in the dark about the seriousness of Brooke's addiction.
"Her anxiety has a real base, because she feels out of the loop and is dealing with the failed marriage, spending time separately with Brooke, wondering what Al knows that Donna doesn't and what Brooke's telling Al that she's not telling her mother.
"By the end of the play she's made a huge leap. She's learned how to be part of something yet not control it or even be central to it."
Working with MacIvor as writer and director, Highet occasionally gets flashes of her past collaborations with playwright/director George F. Walker.
"It might sound strange to compare the two, because on the surface their work is so different. But both Daniel and George encourage you to discover their play's heart. They want to see your version of a character and not define that character for you. As long as you make it feel true, the script has integrity.
"As directors, both men hold you with an open hand and let you play. And as writers, they're not afraid to be simple, to be funny as hell, and then knee you in the groin."