RUNE ARLIDGE by Michael Healey, directed by Leah Cherniak, with Ari Cohen, John Dolan, Fiona Reid, Rick Roberts, Jane Spidell, Julie Stewart and Severn Thompson. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (February 29), opens Tuesday (March 2) and runs to April 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (except February 28) and Sunday 2:30 pm, $26-$32, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $17. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Don't look for a deceased tv sportscaster to make an appearance in Michael Healey's new play Rune Arlidge. He spelled his name Roone. Instead, you'll find members of a dysfunctional family - one of the daughters bears the title name - whose lives are both darkly funny and, almost as an afterthought, pretty upsetting.
"There's no connection to the sportscaster except that Michael likes the name," says director Leah Cherniak. "He's put in a line for me and others who wouldn't know the guy, explaining that the family's absent father loved televised sports.
"But I think," and here Cherniak becomes a bit conspiratorial, "that he's attracted to the rune part." Runes are writing with a mysterious or magical quality.
Healey (The Drawer Boy, Plan B) has written that unusual thing, a three-act Canadian play. His central figures are several female generations of a family that we follow over a 25-year period at their summer cottage. Men circle and periodically influence them, but it's the women who dominate this piece about never-dependable memory and the changes that affect our lives.
"It's not by chance that the local lake is filled with leeches that attach themselves as soon as you step into the water. In some way, the family does its own kind of bloodsucking," notes the director, who is also co-artistic director of Theatre Columbus. She last worked with Healey when she directed him as an actor in Hotel Loopy.
Expert at writing comic characters and entertaining dialogue, Healey here creates a talkative mother, her two distant daughters and the child of one of them. Filling out the cast are the cottage handyman and his son and a pair of very different men who are attracted to Rune.
"Michael throws you right in and doesn't explain any of them or why they do what they do.
"He empathizes with this family of women though he writes them bitingly and with comic resilience. He loves them even if at times they can be pretty hard to take."
There's a strong focus on storytelling, a point that Cherniak emphasizes as she recalls that she was reminded of a fable or fairy tale when she first read the script. Though the dialogue and style are naturalistic, characters do surprising things that alter the lives of those around them.
"But do things change because of our choices and circumstances, or because of fate?" she wonders. "Do we become our parents, or some form of them, because of our actions or theirs?"
Cherniak's aware that Rune Arlidge is a play that works on many levels. "Each act is like a little playlet. In some ways it's a traditional piece of theatre, and in others it's surreal."
"There's so much yummy material to work with - the characters, the relationships, the comedy and the sneaky tragedy that surprises you" (she moves her hand in a swirling gesture) "when it appears from around a corner.
"The audience will be surprised when they're suddenly moved to sadness after laughing so hard."