People’s World: LATE COMPANY is “a combustible, compelling evening”

Now in its 51st year, Theatre 40 claims the honor of presenting the U.S. premiere of Jordan Tannahill’s play Late Company. This intense drama has achieved acclaim in Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, with productions across Canada scheduled for later this year. Tannahill, 28, is “the hottest name in Canadian theatre, according to the Montreal Gazette. Now Magazine calls him “the future of Canadian theatre.”

The premise is that Joel, the 16-year-old son of politician Michael Shaun-Hastings (Grinnell Morris) and his steel-sculpting wife Debora (Ann Hearn), has committed suicide. On the first anniversary of his death, they have invited to their home Curtis Dermot (Baker Chase Powell), a schoolmate of Joel’s who was one of his tormenters, if not the bully in chief. Curtis comes with his parents Tamara (Jennifer Lynn Davis) and Bill (Todd Johnson), in an attempt to reach “closure” on the suicide and the events leading to it.

The two mothers have been in contact throughout the past year, and are inspired to hold this dinner party cum reconciliation thanks to a book by the self-help guru Raj Gupta, who advises having a “conversation” about your loss. The airy-fairiness of this plan is reinforced by the spacey New Age music Debora has chosen as background to the Dermot family’s arrival.

The evening promises an elegantly set table and a superbly prepared meal centering on food to which Curtis, however, is severely allergic, followed by the reading of letters from the young, constantly text-messaging Curtis (who’s about 17 now) to the grieving parents, and then from Debora to the hopefully now repentant bully. On all sides there are visible jitters about whether this evening will succeed or possibly make matters worse.

Only in the act of going through the motions of reconciliation do we see that each of these five people brings to the table a certain amount of dishonesty and disingenuousness, perhaps some of them subconscious up to this point.

“Closure” may have been the ostensible objective for this dinner party, but it gets hijacked by more primitive feelings of defensiveness, revenge, blame, and flight from responsibility. When we ask for an apology, what is it we actually seek? To impose an equal measure of suffering on the responsible person, or more guilt, reparations in some form, even blood?

The objective also demands that the participants in the process be emotionally ready for it. As anyone knows who has experienced grief, it cannot be stage managed even privately, much less as a group in a prescribed format and after a mandated lapse of time.

Joel is the “late company” to which the title refers — the dinner table has a place set for him — but it also refers to the tardy dinner guests. Joel, it turns out, is something of a tabula rasa onto which different family members and school mates project their own personalities and prejudices. Furthermore, as complex creatures, no one ever sees and knows all of our totality, perhaps least of all ourselves. If Joel’s parents saw him as a well-rounded high achiever in academics, sports and the arts who was evidently gay but never quite came out at home, others saw him instead as a mentally disturbed young man. His cliquish classmates recalled him as freakish, overly in-your-face, and gratuitously offensive, even something of a bully himself.

It is not only the “bully” who needs to examine what part he played in Joel’s unexpected decision to kill himself. While Curtis’s parents believe in a “tough love” approach to children, the Shaun-Hastings model appears more laissez-faire. What role might their inattention have played, were they emotionally neglectful, did they show appropriate concern or even curiosity about their son’s unusual behavior? Did they know about the home-made videos Joel was creating and posting on Facebook?

Tannahill is not blasting a wake-up broadside against bullying as such, although that is the play’s subject. That would not be a very interesting work of theatre, but rather a cautionary tale with the simple message, “Don’t bully.” The playwright is more interested in characters open — if at all — to transformation. The welcome catharsis comes slowly, begrudgingly, and only partially, and not how you anticipate it.

Literature and theatre teachers always suggest that you look for the person whose transformation is traced in the work. This pivotal person is not necessarily the protagonist but the one whom we viewers can identify with, the one for whom this story counts the most. “I self-identify as a queer artist,” says playwright Jordan Tannahill. “It’s a concern that infuses all of my work, as does my passion for social issues.” Raised in Ottawa, he himself was “bullied quite a lot long before high school. I was someone who read as gay and that opened me up to a degree of violence” because of the way he expressed himself.

“My mother was always great,” Tannahill continues in a production note in the program, “but, to be totally frank, some of what is said by the visiting couple in the play are things that have been said by my family, or from my parents’ friends, or my mother’s book club. All those subtle hypocrisies, those scathing lines spit under their breath.”

Anyone seeing this play will be moved to self-examination. What insults, put-downs or micro-aggressions did I witness today? And how did I respond? Was I conscious of them when they occurred? How many did I commit myself?

I suggest that the bully himself may be that pivotal character, the one closest in age and experience to the author, and the one who has the longest future ahead of him.

Late Company is not a call for “political correctness,” but is a forceful reminder of the responsibility everyone bears for their words and deeds. Even the dead in this case are not exempted from interrogation.

Family dynamics and gender orientation are familiar themes in the theatre. Add high school bullying with fatal consequences and you have a combustible, compelling evening ahead.

Direction by Bruce Gray is crisp and efficient on a well appointed set (Jeff G. Rack) reflecting comfortable petty bourgeois satisfaction.