BETTER LIVING by George F. Walker, directed by Ken Gass (Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst). To July 1. Pwyc-$35.50. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Families can be like silent ponds, their secrets lying in their depths (see Marion Bridge, below), or torrential rivers regularly bursting their banks. The family unit in George F. Walker 's Better Living is the latter sort; explosiveness, though, is one of its theatrical strengths.
Vintage Walker, the 1985 script explores the seeming craziness in matriarch Nora's household as she builds an extension under the house and deals with three daughters: Elizabeth, a high-powered lawyer, the confused Mary-Ann, and Gail, whose live-in boyfriend, Junior, needs all the approval he can get. Things take a different and more sinister turn when Nora's estranged husband, Tom, returns after several years' absence to redefine the family's needs.
The Factory production, which runs later this month in rep with Better Living's sequel, Escape From Happiness (and in association with Luminato ), is the darkest version of the play I've seen. That edge stems from Ron White 's menacing and increasingly militaristic Tom, who can give a comic line the most ominous suggestiveness.
That combination of creepiness and humour is splendidly realized throughout the production, as characters state their objectives, shift their point of view and try to gain control in a house that's sometimes a modern Bedlam. The cast, in most cases expert at capturing the breakneck quality of Walker's rhythms, knows how to reel in the speed and volume to provide a contrast to the frenzy that can burst forth.
Clare Coulter 's seemingly ditzy Nora becomes the household's linchpin, and her push-pull scenes with White are among the production's finest. Lisa Norton gives Gail, the most grounded family member, a believable sense of power, while Brandon McGibbon 's needy Junior turns immediately to whoever gives him the most positive strokes.
Irene Poole 's Elizabeth is the most complex figure, an office-tower Valkyrie who slides under the influence of her father, while Oliver Becker as Nora's priest brother casts a relatively calm outside eye on the family's ups and downs. Only Sarah Manninen 's Mary-Ann doesn't seem a genuine part of this group, failing to capture the logic that enfolds the characters' quirkiness.