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From “The Good Doctor” Sean Collins (left), Stephanie Curran (middle), Josh Collier provide a scene of vibrant and alive and the actors allowed themselves to be fully engaged in the moment.
©Greg Noel photo
The St. John’s Players took to the stage on Wednesday night in Gander with a most reverential performance of “The Good Doctor,” Neil Simon’s love letter to Anton Chekhov.
Simon’s affection for the Russian doctor turned writer is implied by the title, and clearly shown by the way the playwright brings Chekhov to life as our host and guide for the evening.
Director Louise Kearley and the design team for the St. John’s Players obviously felt compelled to capture Simon’s earnest respect for the Russian literary giant as was evidenced by the colossal image of Chekhov that was projected on an upstage scrim at the opening of the show; the masters intense gaze seemingly studying the audience, attempting to determine if one of us could become his next source of inspiration. Classical music of the era accompanied the image and as both faded our host emerged from the wings and a sonorous voice, appropriate for such a “giant”, filled the entire theatre and began to shepherd us on our journey.
The booming voice that gently cradled us all belonged to Jim Healey. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this performer on stage, I can only say that listening to this man read the ingredients on a can of soup would be worth the price of admission, so hearing him speak the delightful text of Neil Simon was quite a treat.
As Chekhov, Mr. Healey was affable, a gentlemanly scholar who, as a good host should, never failed to guide his audience from moment to moment. Serious about his craft, Mr. Healey’s Chekhov also revealed moments of boyish charm with rising brows and a devilish grin. He proceeded to lead us through an evening of his stories that featured a truly capable ensemble of performers.
The set was minimal, with few props. Projections and costuming that used a variety of textures, colours and layers effectively set the mood and period. The stage was primarily broken into three playing areas - left, right and center. The action started stage right at Chekhov’s writing desk and progressed across the stage and then back again.
This mechanical pattern repeated as the stories unfolded, forcing the eyes of the audience to move from left to right. The repeated motion elicited a feeling that was akin to reading a book. Considering the subject, I wondered if this pattern was by design.
The writing was light and fun and for the most part stands the test of time as the audience responded with consistent laughter throughout as the cast efficiently delivered Simon’s comedic text. Sean Collins and Stephanie Curran provided standout moments that were truly hilarious.
My primary critique would be that the production may have been too reverential, too polite. The scene that received the most powerful response involved Curran and Collins engaged in a physical and verbal battle in which the actors employed strong physicality, utilized more of the stage, stood on chairs and sprawled on the floor, organically creating levels that revealed a continual changing of status and a true power struggle. It was vibrant and alive and the actors allowed themselves to be fully engaged in the moment.
The direction was clear and precise and the result was pure comedy.
The overall production could certainly benefit from the energy, edginess and passion that was revealed here. By looking for ways to apply the honesty and clever staging of this scene to the remainder of the production, a genteel comedy becomes a truly hilarious and affecting evening of theatre.