What I call her is a brave but troubled play – by the former, I mean in terms of subject matter; by the latter, I mean in terms of writing and acting.
Playwright Ellie Moon clearly likes to tackle difficult material. Her first play, Asking For it, was a docudrama about sexual consent that was built around verbatim interviews conducted by Moon herself. It was a sold-out hit. I wish I could say her second play was as strong.
What I call her has a thought-provoking premise. Graduate student Kate (Charlie Gould) reads about a family of adult children who wrote a scathing obituary after the death of their father, in order to make known the truth about this awful man. Kate’s estranged mother is currently dying in Sault Ste. Marie, and, inspired by the story, Kate, who was physically abused by her mother, fantasizes about writing a truthful obituary about her. She begins to write it, but says she will never post it. Apparently, her mother was sexually abused herself, and has won acclaim for starting a foundation to help victims of abuse. Kate wants everyone to know that her mother is not a saint.
To bring matters to a head, Kate’s younger sister Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) who is at McGill, arrives to beg Kate to contact their mother. Ruby is stopping overnight in Toronto en route to the Sault. The voice of reason in the play is Kate’s boyfriend Kyle (Michael Ayres), who knows how neurotic Kate is, but is willing to stand by her, nonetheless. He also tries to mediate between the warring sisters. It seems that Ruby, who is five years younger, does not really believe that Kate was physically abused, as she did not witness any incidents.
Moon does have strength as a wordsmith in her ability to write dialogue at cross-purposes. All three characters have their own agendas, and the conversation reflects this. They seem not to be listening to each other. On the other hand, the writing is choppy and it is difficult for the actors to find pacing and rhythm. The conversation between Kate and Kyle is particularly stilted. When Ruby arrives, the war of words between the three builds to a furious climax, and Moon certainly knows how to create dramatic conflict. The problem is that the playwright has so much she wants to say about abuse, and how it impacts on family, that the dialogue seems too crammed with information. The sisters, in particular, go through many twists and turns in mood and conversational direction. Nonetheless, it is hard to know which sister to believe, or how much to believe, which is a strength in Moon’s favour.
Then there are the inconsistencies. At one point, Kate says that the system failed her mother, yet this understanding does not soften her rage. We really do need further exploration here. As well, Kate starts off to write a “scathing” obituary, but ends up being kinder than she wants to be, which blunts the drama. The ending is also questionable. It is as if Moon is deliberately pulling in her fangs rather than going for the jugular, which would have made for an edgier play given the topic. It is not believable that one night is going to soften the relationship between the sisters to that degree. Also, and this is a trivial point, but it bothered me. Kate borrows Kyle’s computer to write her mother’s obit. How can a graduate student who has published stories, and who is studying creative writing, one presumes, not have her own computer?
As for the acting, there are problems. Gould as Kate seems to be too self-conscious, acting at rather than acting from. She fights for her words rather than conveying an ease of delivery. Kyle is supposed to be low key, but Ayres makes him practically invisible, although it could be that director Sarah Kitz wanted him underplayed. Ellwand’s Ruby fares the best, and she does manage to galvanize her colleagues, but Moon gives her character so many abrupt changes that any actor would have difficulty playing the truth. Director Kitz has tried for realism, but she falls back too much on having the actor currently at the centre, staring down the other two.
At this world premiere, What I call her would appear to need work on the script, and a stronger Kate and Kyle.
In Association Production & Crow’s Theatre/What I call her by Ellie Moon, directed by Sarah Kitz, Scotiabank Community Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Nov. 16 to Dec. 8, 2018.