BEA'S NIECE by David Gow, directed by Richard Rose, with John Bourgeois, Patricia Hamilton, Fiona Highet and Maria Ricossa. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews to January 2, opens January 4 and runs to February 6, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm (no matinee January 1). $27-$33, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $17, some stu/sr discounts. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Patricia Hamilton has had two theatrical families during her rich career - the Tarragon Theatre and, more recently, the Shaw Festival. This season the respected actor is travelling back and forth between the two. Just after finishing Pygmalion at Shaw, Hamilton began rehearsals for Bea's Niece, the Tarragon 2005 opener.
A look at the external and internal lives of novelist Anne Hirsch and the points of connection between the two - the audience isn't always sure which reality it's observing - David Gow's play brings together the writer's psychiatrist, her husband, her redoubtable Aunt Bea and rabbi Paula Stern, who has some striking thoughts about the hospitalized Anne.
Hamilton plays both Bea and the rabbi. It's not the first time Hamilton, raised Presbyterian in Saskatchewan, has converted onstage. In Angels In America, she played another rabbi - and a male one at that.
"I've done my share of homework hanging out at Bathurst and Eglinton and listening to the customers in Yitz's," smiles the award-winning actor. "You can just sit and get a little of the smell of it all, the rhythms of the language."
Bea's Niece marks Hamilton's 15th show at the Tarragon since the early 70s, including notable work in plays by Michel Tremblay. After eight years at Niagara-on-the-Lake, she's also establishing herself as a force in the work of Shaw and his contemporaries.
"I've spent a lifetime looking for a company," she says, "a place where I can work on great plays and rehearse and perform in a long-term repertory situation. That's why I set up Masterclass Theatre in the 80s, and my time at Shaw has been a liberal, ongoing education.
"Coming back to the Tarragon, where I worked 32 years ago, has been a little scary. I think that's both about returning to the small-theatre scene and to the Tarragon itself, with a rehearsal process that's different from Shaw.
"There's a terrific advantage at Shaw spending eight weeks looking at a play. There's actually no more stage time than in a four-week rehearsal here, but having more thinking time is useful."
Hamilton sees a vital link, though, between the works of Shaw and Gow's script. It's no surprise to her that director Richard Rose is presenting it, for the Tarragon has always been a playwright-centred theatre.
"I love Shaw because I love plays of language, and here I'm working on just that, though it's different in style and in other ways from the Shaw scripts and others we do there.
"I think of David as a writer like Edward Albee in that they are sophisticated poets of the common language, each with an individual voice. As a performer, I find myself engaged by that language.
"You're helped by the rhythm of their words and had better learn their lines precisely; if you make a mistake, the rhythm will be wrong and the speech won't work."
And despite serious moments in its discussion of sanity, magic, deep spirituality and the wildness of the artist's imagination, Bea's Niece can also be hugely funny, in what Hamilton, who returns to Shaw next summer, describes as "a dry, wry Jewish way.
"The comedy sits well, and I admire writing that comes off the tongue easily. If the actors follow the clues in the play, we can't go wrong."