BETTER LIVING and ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS by George F. Walker, directed by Ken Gass, with Oliver Becker, Clare Coulter, Brandon McGibbon, Irene Poole, Ron White, Lisa Norton, Sarah Manninen, Layne Coleman and Dylan Trowbridge. Presented by Factory in association with Luminato at Factory Mainspace (125 Bathurst). Better Living now in previews, opens Saturday (May 5) and runs to July 1; Escape previews from May 27, opens May 31 and runs in rep to June 17. To May 26, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm; varied times thereafter. $25-$35.50, previews $12, mat $25, Sun pwyc. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
If Canadian theatre has a royal family, Clare Coulter is part of its inner circle.
From her roots in Theatre Passe Muraille in the late 60s to more than two decades of strong work at the Tarragon, Coulter has performed the classics and premiered works by Michel Tremblay, Judith Thompson and John Murrell.
Performing Margaret Atwood's poems in Good Bones, she was simple, direct and wonderfully moving, qualities she also brought to Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan And Lemon, The Designated Mourner and his monologue The Fever. Coulter magically created a superb intimacy in The Fever, whether she was performing it in someone's living room or a traditional theatre.
Now Coulter's reunited with playwright George F. Walker in remounts of two of his East End Plays, Better Living and Escape From Happiness, the latter revived from last year. Written several years apart, they deal mostly with the same characters, but haven't been performed locally in rep fashion until now. They're part of the months-long Walker Project, which also includes the teen show Tough.
Coulter plays controlling matriarch Nora, mother of three troubled daughters and wife of a man who's more trouble than he's worth. (He's tried to burn the house down with his family inside.)
"Controlling?" asks Coulter during a rehearsal break. "I wouldn't have used that word, because I think about a character from the inside, and Nora doesn't see herself as controlling.
"For me, she's a character who on the surface is innocuous, light-hearted and entertaining. But she uses all those things to cover up the fact that she's so anxious about life, trying to figure out a way around its dangers and threats without acknowledging that they exist."
Coulter smiles, and her eyes take on a bright intensity as she talks about Nora, whose way of protecting her family is to build them more room underground a whole city if need be.
"Most people would want to be rid of someone like her husband, Tom, but in Nora's world the family is of top importance. So she keeps bringing him back as part of that structure, seeking to find happiness with Tom as part of the family unit.
"By the end of the first play, she's pretty far from a commonsense, healthy being. In the sequel, Escape From Happiness, the family's become pretty much deranged because of Tom's attempts to restructure the family into something he finds efficient."
What's it like to return to Escape From Happiness after a year, especially in the context of the other work?
"I don't think Nora has to present herself as such a helpless innocent, pretending to be what she's not," says Coulter. "I can offer a more solid Nora in Escape because I've been through her earlier experiences."
It's not just characterization, but language and rhythm that kick-start Coulter's work in Walker's plays.
"What drives you as an actor is how active the words are, like food that has an active ingredient," she offers. "Lively dialogue is invigorating to perform. You don't have a sensation that the scene could be taking place anywhere except Toronto."
Coulter notes that many of her non-Walker roles depend to some extent on the monologue, a form that Walker rarely uses.
But "doing a play by George means I flex my theatrical muscles, even my actual muscles, differently," Coulter adds. "Last year I wore any old shoes for Escape, but this time around I've found rubber-soled French shoes that have a spring in them and send my feet dancing.
"That's helpful in these plays, because I want to bring my body into a state of total activity. There's no five-minute monologue on the next page when my body will become quiet and neutral."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Playing George F. Walker last year and this year