Faly Mevamanana as Eddie and Allister MacDonald as Erin in Alison Crosby’s In Lieu of Flowers. (Stoo Metz)
For a play about grief, In Lieu of Flowers is remarkably funny as well as spiritually deep.
Cape Breton writer Alison Crosby’s 90-minute play is a striking and powerful journey into grief – something everybody experiences but no one wants to talk about.
This world premiere, running through Sunday as a Neptune/Highland Arts Theatre co-production at Neptune’s studio theatre, is the first play in Neptune’s INKubator development program matching emerging playwrights with seasoned professionals.
In Lieu of Flowers, directed by 2022 Simonovitch Prize finalist Ann-Marie Kerr, stars Neptune regulars Faly Mevamanana (Alice in Alice in Wonderland), Merritt award-winner Allister MacDonald (Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror Picture Show), Breton Lalama (every role in Fully Committed), Neptune Theatre school graduate Jessica Brown and Dora Mavor Moore award-winner Kristina Nicoll, coming home for her Neptune debut (and it’s a good one).
Everyone who has experienced grief will recognize something from funeral-home black comedy to intense, psychic imbalance in Crosby’s mix of sarcasm-laced comedy and intense, poetic, magic realism.
Mevamanana, on stage for the whole play, has indefatigable energy and nuanced depths of emotion as Eddie, a smart-talking, sarcastic, young woman thrown off course by the sudden death of her brother.
As Eddie descends into grief and guilt she enters a cold, imaginary world haunted by her equally smart-talking brother, played by MacDonald in a beautiful physical and verbal way as both a loving, teasing, comical character as well as a more sinister, pained, needling presence.
Eddie’s family – her gender-fluid partner, her religious mother and her brother’s self-centred fiance – are all struggling with their own grief in more usual ways and want Eddie to “get over it.”
Kristina Nicoll as the mother has a slow build from a shut-down, just keep-on-moving woman to a genuine, colourful human being who is very funny and deeply human. Nicoll has great powers of expression; she can draw laughter just by the movement of an arm.
Breton Lalama adds a lot of warmth as Eddie’s loveable, confused but supportive partner. Jessica Brown as Erin’s embittered girlfriend is a comically acerbic character struggling with the fact she may not have loved Erin as much as his sister did.
Katrin Whitehead’s incredible and haunting design for In Lieu of Flowers elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary, visually depicting Eddy’s inner life so it is felt in both imagery and words.
A back wall, all in white, is studded with raised boxes. It reads as both a street with houses and fields and as a graveyard with coffins. A gauzy fabric wall-covering of abstracted flowers serves as a screen for projections of comical text around the ubiquitous obituary phrase of “In lieu of flowers …..” with numerous nonsensical suggestions.
Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting design keeps the massive wall and stage props of white coffin-like boxes ghostly and chilly and otherworldly. The mix of real and surreal in props and design is unsettling and fascinating; a box becomes an imaginary freezer holding real frozen food. There is an obsession with flowers.
(Rounding out the creative team are projection designer Jordan Palmer, costume designer Kayla Cormier and stage manager Heather Lewis with Ryan Wilcox as the RBC Chrysalis lighting design assistant.)
Kerr has a strong grip on the play riding out its rhythms of emotion and its journeying in and out of naturalism and poetic reality,. Occasionally it’s unclear what’s happening or why Eddie behaves as she does. The show moves along quickly to an unusual, highly dramatic conclusion.
I went with two people who in recent years have suffered big losses. I said to one of them: “I expected her to resolve her grief in a more realistic way by the end.”
And she said, “Sometimes grief is never resolved.”
Tickets are available at www.neptunetheatre.com/boxoffice or by calling (902) 429-7070.
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