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Feature Article - December 1, 2005

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December 1, 2005

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Delia's Hereafter Society

by Jeff Green

I must admit that I get quite nervous about going to live theatre, much more so than attending any other kind of cultural event. My fear, even as an audience member, is that the play won’t work at all; that some combination of the acting, the way the lines are written, and the direction, will be so off kilter that the whole thing will be an embarrassment. And the audience will be doomed to share in that embarrassment.

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In the Delia Hereafter Society, which was performed for three nights at the Octave Theatre at Ecole Marie Riviere in Kingston last weekend, the risks were greater than normal. The Delia Hereafter Society is an original musical written by first-time playwright Jennifer Bennett, and it was produced without the benefit of Canada Council development grants and the like.

Yet, it worked, and it worked well! The characters were well drawn. The music was good, the action flowed, and there were no instances where a character broke into song for no apparent reason.

One of the great things about The Delia Hereafter Society was the surefootedness of all the actors. They always seemed to know what they were doing, letting the characters be over the top at points, but reining them in so they always resembled real people in the way they reacted to each other and their respective situations.

The common thread in the play is loss, the painful loss of a mate. Even though bereavement is not generally considered a barrel of laughs, for the most part, the Delia Hereafter Society is a musical comedy.

Delia (Susie Ralph) is a Toronto-based bereavement Councillor who has invited two women from one of her classes, Bunny (Debra Spaar-Muller) and Sue (Barbara Bell), to a weekend at the rustic home of her mother Mona (Joan Jones). Bunny is horrified by outhouses, mice, and all things rural, and Sue is a rough-around-the-edges working class woman who didn’t have a great relationship with her dead husband. These two characters provide a lot of the humour in the play.

In addition to the four women, there are three men on stage. At first they are seated on chairs at the side, but soon they are moving around among the women, who are unable to see them. Daniel (Gord Love), Jake (Daniel Robinson) and Tom (Allan MacDonald) are the dead husbands of Bunny, Sue, and Mona. Also seated on the side of the stage is a woman dressed in black (Danielle Lennon), who plays the fiddle during the musical numbers, accompanying an offstage piano.

Through a series of musical numbers featuring both the “live” women and the ghostly men, much about the three sets of relationships is revealed. The husbands have the function of a Greek Chorus at times, and bring depth to the lives of the women, who carry on as if the men were, well, dead. The production numbers featuring the ghostly husbands were some of the best in the play, and their interaction with each other was often hilarious. And with a knowing shrug and a wink to the audience, the husbands offered great counterpoint to the drama unfolding among their living wives.

As the play progresses Delia becomes more and more agitated by her mother’s lifestyle. Mona engages in a variety of unorthodox odd jobs to make a living, including producing intimate photographs of her neighbours for their own private use. Mona also conducts the odd snce, in which she arranges for people’s dead relatives to tell the living exactly what they want to hear.

As Delia loses patience with her mother she also turns on the two other women as well, until finally she confesses that she too, is bereaved.

Her mate, Lucy, has died in a car accident just three months earlier. Lucy, it turns out, has been on stage throughout; she is the fiddler. Once Delia’s secret is revealed, much of the tension between the women is released and there is a chance for reconciliation, and for insights about the nature of loss and the recovery from loss to come to the fore.

The Delia Hereafter Society is a very intimate play. All the characters are on stage most of the time, there is intrigue in the relationships between the four sets of mates and between the two groups, the living and the dead. The characters are at different stages of bereavement, and are also very different personalities reacting to loss in their own ways. All of these realities give the Delia Hereafter Society depth, and it manages to be both an enjoyable musical as well as a meditation on grief.

The most poignant moment in the play takes place after the four women have gone to sleep for the night. As they sleep the barrier between the living and the dead doesn’t exist and the four couples waltz about the stage until the stage lights fade to black.

The play could have ended at that point, but it didn’t. There was a tomorrow morning. Gradually as the new day wore on the need for a second day became apparent, symbolizing a new stage of development for the women, moving on. In their own ways, each of the characters demonstrated they are indeed going to carry on with their lives. The mates will never be left completely behind, but the women will meet new people, enter into new loves, and live on.

Mona, taking on the role of the wise elder, tells Delia a simple but important thing: the only difference between the live mate and the dead one is that the dead one died first.

Jennifer Bennett has written a wonderful play. She wrote the words and music to 11 songs, created eight distinct voices that rang true, and built a funny and poignant narrative that flowed from beginning to end.

The play has received a great inauguration by an excellent cast. The songs were good, as was the singing. Suzie Ralph, as Delia, deserves special mention because her character was in many ways the centre of the play and was the most demanding role. She brought both strength and vulnerability to Delia.

Credit must also go to Inie Platenius for directing the play and to John McDougall for producing it, and to Danielle Lennon, who was the musical director as well as the fiddle player and Lucy. It must have been a challenge to put life to a play that had never been off the page before.

This is a play that should be performed again. As good as it was, it was a first production and had some flaws. The lessons learned from this production should make those flaws easier to iron out the second time around.

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