3 SQUARES A DAY by Tom Walmsley, directed by Kate Lynch, with Patricia Fagan, David Jansen and Jordan Pettle. Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (February 16) and runs to March 12, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$30. 416-504-7529.
Tom Walmsley's 3 Squares A Day may be set in a kitchen, but don't expect a realistic kitchen-sink drama from the author of Blood and The Jones Boy.
Those plays, sharp as razor blades, deal with prostitutes, junkies and pimps, and the former throws in incest for good measure.
3 Squares is seemingly more straitlaced. Its characters are a married couple, Morgan and Candace, suburban members of the religious right, and the husband's reprobate brother, Thomas James, who suddenly reappears in Morgan's life.
Early on in rehearsals, Walmsley called the piece a political play. Patricia Fagan, who plays Candace, sees it as a domestic story, a love triangle within a political framework.
"And I see it as a religious piece," counters David Jansen, who plays the Biblically named Thomas James. "All three believe in God Thomas James has recently converted to Catholicism and they argue religion on a regular basis. I think of the piece as a parable, a pithy story about the seductions of conformity.
"If Jesus were a Toronto playwright," he laughs, "he might have come up with this script."
Though it's a comedy, don't expect the laughs to be of the sitcom variety.
"We've been talking about it as a satire, a send-up that's taken to extremes," says Fagan. "We push the ideas as far as we can without cracking up at their ridiculousness."
"It's an unusual look at a middle-class family," continues Jansen, whose fine work includes A Whistle In The Dark and That Time, "with that milieu exaggerated and told in bold strokes."
Thomas is the ne'er-do-well brother, the middle-aged lefty who's getting old and hasn't the energy to rebel any more. He's broke and jobless, has to move in with his conservative younger brother and deal with the values of a suburban, fundamentalist Christian family. The play focuses on his struggle to reject or conform to the model.
But the Christian couple aren't stereotypes; their thoughts and desires go beyond the spiritual. All three characters, in fact, are intensely sexual.
"Candace shows what she wants early in the play and strategically goes about getting it," notes Fagan, a Soulpepper regular. "Thomas James fascinates her, but she wants to hold onto her husband Morgan as well. Drawn to both, she hopes to have the two brothers without disrupting her value system, her suburban rules.
"She tries to manoeuvre her way through these rules without rocking the boat or taking on the guilt that might come with her actions."
How do these two nowhere-near-right-wing actors get into the headspace of their characters?
"I had a light bulb go on when director Kate Lynch said I was trying to see Candace's world in shades of grey," says Fagan. "Instead, Candace views everything in black and white. She makes her decisions and conveniently places them inside a moral code she's laid out for herself.
"Candace never looks back; she can find a Biblical quote to back up literally everything she wants to believe."
And underlying the other tensions is the sibling competition between Morgan and Thomas James.
"The competition is about dominance and who's the head of the household," states Jansen. "Morgan's the younger brother, but the home is his and he has the financial stability.
"Thomas James, who's lived with the underclass, is beholden to Morgan for survival. But finding that demeaning, he tries over the course of the play to reverse the situation."
Both performers admire Walmsley's way with words, the musical yet everyday quality of his writing.
"I like his candour and his transparency as a writer," adds Jansen. "He's open about the things that bother him and the contradictions he feels, and he puts the two unapologetically on the page.
"Tom's fearless, and his characters have the same refreshing candour and boldness. He's also one of the few Canadian playwrights Morwyn Brebner and George F. Walker are other examples who tackle class issues.
"Because Canada is such a consensus culture, it's important to appreciate those like Tom who, not part of that consensus, contribute contrarian ideas."