It's a measure of my immense admiration for her work that Jan Derbyshire was able to lure me, on what was one of the most spectacular days we've had so far this summer, to a Saturday matinee performance of her newest play, Turkey in the Woods, on at the Roundhouse Community Centre through this Wednesday. Programmed as part of Vancouver's fifth annual Queer Arts Festival, in a co-production with Screaming Weenie Productions (through whom the play received an early development reading two years ago), the play focuses on Hale (in a drily mordant turn by the playwright herself), a manic-depressive recovering alcoholic lesbian. Did I mention it's a romantic comedy?
As the play opens, Hale has abandoned her long-suffering lover, Peach (Morgan Brayton), in Vancouver in order to join her mother (Suzie Payne) and her sister Lilah (Cherise Clarke) in the wilds of Alberta for a Thanksgiving weekend reunion meant to lay the ghosts of family dysfunction that have long haunted Hale to rest. However, those ghosts turn out to be as numerous as Ma’s compensatory white lies and as hearty as sister Lilah's liver (she, like everyone else in the family--including a father and brother we hear about but do not see--drinks to excess, though in her case she might actually have a legitimate reason in the degenerative spinal disease she may or may not be suffering from). As this description so far suggests, the first half of Turkey pushes the limits of family psychodrama to some absurd extremes, and Derbyshire is fearless in testing her audience's identification with her characters by a) burdening them with multiple neuroses, and b) making none of them terribly likeable. It's a credit to all of the performers that they give their all to the material, making these three women's simultaneous desire to connect and inability to overlook the obstacles to that connection seem absolutely real, no matter the surreality of their circumstances--including building a picnic table amidst the backdrop of hunters stalking wild turkeys for dinner (which seems as apt a metaphor as any for the unfinished business of self-discovery at the heart of this play).
My one complaint (besides the somewhat clunky and overly static blocking of director James Fagan Tait) is that, at present, the play’s structure feels a bit too skewed toward the biological family trio. We hear about Peach very early in the play, but we do not meet her physically until the last third of the 90 minute one-act, when she arrives, deus-ex-machina-like (in spike-healed boots, no less), to rescue Hale from the morass into which she has further enmeshed herself. But not before she forces Hale to reinvent herself (and the play) on the spot, casting off her abject self as a daughter and sister weighted down by the past and stepping boldly into her present role as romantic partner. It’s a tall order, but Brayton makes the most of what in less experienced playwriting hands might have been just a walk-on part. Trust me when I say that it’s not, and that the dramatic payoff is well worth the wait.
Which is where the kiss comes in, a kiss Derbyshire had talked about in press for the piece, and which absolutely delivers on her goal to serve up some girl-on-girl heat that would melt even your grandmother’s knees.