GIRL IN THE GOLDFISH BOWL written and directed by Morris Panych, with Tanja Jacobs, John Jarvis, Kristina Nicoll, Brenda Robins and Richard Zeppieri. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Runs to October 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$31, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNN
Morris Panych loves his loony characters. The wonder is that they're also so human.His latest, Girl In The Goldfish Bowl, set during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in a BC cannery town, focuses on the precocious, soon-to-be-11 Iris (Kristina Nicoll), who firmly believes that her recently dead goldfish held together not merely her shaky family but all world order. The appearance of a near-drowned stranger, Mr. Lawrence (Richard Zeppieri), offers her new hope for happiness.
Panych adds other fascinatingly needy characters. There are Iris's distraught parents (John Jarvis and Brenda Robins) -- two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that will never fit together -- and their man-hungry, tipsy boarder (Tanja Jacobs), who looks like an escapee from a 40s Rosie the Riveter training film.
In dialogue that has a staccato, start/stop quality, we learn about these characters' interlocking insecurities, dreams and neuroses, but Panych and his expert cast turn our laughter into deeply felt concern for these people who can't seem to connect with others. Onstage almost constantly, Nicoll provides the narration, moving from melodramatic, prescient, neckless preteen to wistful grown-up who must carry the weight of her memories.
Ken MacDonald's intriguing set, lit by John Thompson, adds to the production's quirky atmosphere. The family house looks like it's part of a decaying pier and occasionally as if it's underwater, inside a fish tank.
If there's a problem, it's in Panych's direction, which encourages sputtering, like his dialogue.
While that quality adds comedy to the script, the choppiness of the acting rhythms sometimes impedes the play's drive.