Manitoba·REVIEW

PTE season opener wobbles, but pulls at heartstrings

What happens when the bonds that hold a family together disintegrate? That’s the question at the heart of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, a play that certainly has its own pull on the audience’s heartstrings, though it wobbles considerably as it spins its story.

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble is an imperfect tearjerker, but a tearjerker nonetheless

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, now running at Prairie Theatre Exchange, pulls at the audience's heartstrings, though its story wobbles. (Leif Norman)

There are unseen forces that hold the universe together, that hold a family together and that hold us together as individuals. So what happens when those bonds begin to disintegrate?

That's the question at the heart of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, a Governor General's Award-nominated 2013 play by Edmonton playwright Beth Graham. It's a play that certainly has its own pull on the audience's heartstrings, though it wobbles considerably as it spins its story.

While Bernice (played beautifully by Marina Stephenson Kerr) is our title character, our guide through her world is her daughter Iris (RobYn Slade), who acts as narrator and our focal point. 

Marina Stephenson Kerr delivers a wrenching performance as Bernice, though Iris (played by RobYn Slade) acts as narrator and our focal point through sometimes overwritten monologue. (Leif Norman)
When Bernice gathers Iris and her other children — the mothering Sarah (Toni Reimer) and mathematical but repressed Peter (Tom Keenan) — to reveal she's been struck with a cruel and debilitating disease, the family's previously solid world begins to spiral apart.

It's a kitchen sink drama, with all of the action playing out on Brian Perchaluk's handsome set — an elegant, almost antiseptic space that belies the messiness of what's happening in Iris and Bernice's worlds.

And those kitchen sink scenes are where Graham's script is most effective. Her characters are all credible and well-drawn, and there's a palpable chemistry between them in their interactions and exchanges — testament to both good writing and strong performances in director Bob Metcalfe's well-honed, 90-minute production. These people feel like a real family dealing with a real, and for some probably all too relatable, crisis.

But much of the play becomes monologue from Iris as our narrator, and here the writing is less successful. The monologue often strays into cliché, relies on heavy-handed metaphor and worst, often feels like it's distracting from the story rather than adding significantly to it.

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble's characters feel like a real family dealing with a real, and for some probably all too relatable, crisis. (Leif Norman)
Slade does what she can with the sometimes unwieldy bits of monologue, and she delivers an engaging and emotionally honest performance. But Stephen Kerr has the real show-stopping moments here — her wrenching performance in one scene in which we see the horror of her disease laid bare quite literally gave me chills. 

If you love a good tearjerker, you won't be disappointed — tears will be jerked, and I heard more than a few sniffles in the opening night audience at the play's end.

And in the end, The Gravitational Pull is perhaps like the casserole Iris assembles throughout the play as she narrates — gooey and a bit messy, but still something greater than the sum of its imperfect parts.

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Oct. 30.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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