THE GARDEN written and directed by Laura Astwood, Barbara Gosling Gray and Karin Randoja, with Astwood. Presented by the Living Room Company at St. Mary's Art Centre (40 Westmoreland). Runs to June 17, Thursday-Sunday 8 pm. $12. 416-534-7360. Rating: NN
it's no coincidence that the Garden, a one-hander about death, finds its performance space in a creaky old chapel. The Living Room Company, which is committed to intimate, conversational theatre settings, wants the audience to feel a part of the drama. We do.
An eerie, wake-like silence fills the chapel before the performance. An audience of 20 or so sit on church-issue chairs at one end of the room, waiting self-consciously for the dead person to arrive.
But the deceased turns up not in a casket but in a white nightgown, and begins preparing a pie for her own funeral. With only an hour to go, Nancy (Laura Astwood) must organize the children and the loft, pick the apples and clean the house and barn. She's not ready for her funeral and definitely not ready to die at the age of 37.
In the piece's 50 minutes, Nancy moves from denial through rage to final acceptance, expressing a few regrets about unfinished projects and unborn babies along the way.
The play, culled from a 13-year correspondence between Barbara Gosling Gray (who passed away in September 1999) and Astwood, works best as oral history and as a eulogy to a beloved friend.
Dramatically, The Garden fails to construct the desired emotional tug. Astwood flails about the chapel floor, going from 0 to 60 emotionally in five seconds flat. Whispered denials, foot-stomping rage and bizarre dance sequences are supposed to express catharsis but wind up being overkill.
As for the question posed here of what happens after we die, the answers amount to wishful thinking about the great beyond, a cultural obsession rarely expressed without goofy cliches. And call me a hermetically-sealed-room fetishist, but it's kind of hard to get into the illusion of the afterlife with the sounds of someone's backyard barbecue wafting through the stained-glass windows.