susan leblanc & stewart legere
The first thing that struck me upon entering the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre for Zuppa Theatre’s production of The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions, which closes there tonight, was the gorgeously crafted set, created by Katherine Jenkins-Ryan and Michael Ryan that immediately planted the story I had not seen yet in Halifax’s own North End. Yet, these familiar “jellybean houses,” to borrow from Alex McLean, are here in miniature, like dollhouses, which was immediately suggestive of the playful exploration of the dichotomy of bigness, smallness and gigantickness in our everyday experiences. It also prompted me to lean forward, craning my eyes to see all the very small details in these houses, and in these boxes and as the actors filled the space I leaned forward even more ardently, listening and watching the most intently for the small among the deafening and the gigantick among the silence.
The second thing that struck me upon entering the Studio was the realization that, unlike many of Zuppa shows that are devised by the company, this one was written by a Cleveland-based playwright, Mike Geither. It is interesting to see a play so strongly rooted in the local neighborhoods of Halifax, and also featuring Peggy’s Cove, one of Nova Scotia’s most iconic tourist attractions, performed by a company just as rooted in the here, the now and the community, but written by an obviously smitten visitor. The most fascinating thing is that Geither’s voice melds seamlessly into the familiar Zuppa voice. There are echoes of The Debacle here; there are echoes of Poor Boy. This play manages to be very different, yet, still fits beautifully into an already established canon and aesthetic, which makes this collaboration seem very organic.
The story of The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is rooted in the personal, in the subtle shifts in the human experience that often can seem utterly Gigantick when we are going through them, although they may appear inconsequential or commonplace to others. It is set atop a sort of counterpart backdrop of war in a foreign place that can be seen as being universally Gigantick, or entirely marginal, depending on your point of view. Alice’s father is dying and for Alice the pain, the fear and the sadness is Gigantick. Her brother, Francis, is returning from his second tour as a translator in Afghanistan and his post-traumatic stress is Gigantick and the atrocities he has witnessed in Afghanistan are Gigantick, but the, potentially, more personal grief that awaits him at home is also Gigantick. He also may be falling in love with Alice’s friend Robin, which also has moments of Gigantick. Robin is from Texas and her exuberance is Gigantick. Alice and Francis have a dear friend named Martin, who is childlike in innocence and wonder. His feelings for Robin (as well as his concern, care and love for Alice and Francis) are also Gigantick.
The performances in this production, along with the miniature jellybean houses, are what make this play so compelling, heart rending and beautiful to watch. The dynamics between the characters are so rich, wordlessly complex, intense and fascinating. Susan Leblanc and Ben Stone immediately are siblings and one gets the sense of being able to imagine their lives before Francis went off to a war zone. Leblanc is filled with conflicting emotions that meld into one another in a frenzy of anguish and fear. There is a moment where Alice attacks Francis in the middle of his homecoming party and it is a brutally honest portrayal of an extremely human moment. Stone’s Francis is trapped behind a facade of affable relief and joy at his own homecoming, trying to remain the stoic hero, but his eyes are always melancholy. Katie Dorian gives a spirited performance as Robin, whose optimism and blithe love of life seems to both lift the more introspective others, but her light also accentuates the darkness Francis, Alice and Martin often drift into. Stewart Legere gives a beautifully poignant performance as Martin, whose genuine goodness radiates sheepish and cautiously as he finds his own ways to play and to find joy in an often dreary world.
Alex McLean makes some great directorial choices in this piece. I love how he allows Gigantik outside influences, like the music at a party or the crashing waves of the Atlantic, drown out the voices of the characters, making them small and forcing the audience to strain their ears or perhaps miss pieces of the action, as it happens so often in life. We are often dwarfed by overpowering circumstances, we are often left with no resolutions or answers and we are always imperfect. This play captures all these things while still remaining fascinating, reflective and lovely.
On Opening Night some of the projections had technical glitches and I found that while sometimes it was immediately clear what the intended effect of the projections was, for example the dialogue on the screen when the scenes grew too loud, the tiny people in the miniature houses and the way the back panels changed to evoke the change in scenery, sometimes the intention seemed less clear or superfluous. I would have liked to see more playing with the small characters within the houses- they are so beautiful and unique, I wanted them to be even more central to the way the stories unfolded. Geither’s writing is very polished. I like that he leaves gaps allowing the actors to fill in the spaces. It’s interesting to see a story about a man returning from the war in Afghanistan, which, I think so often is seen as being “someone else’s story” set immediately among us. Of course it is our story as much as it is anyone’s story and it deserves to be told. I did wonder if Robin was slightly too stereotypically “Texan,” which is interesting given that Geither is from Ohio and yet his Canadian characters are not at all clichéd.
In all, The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is a lovely play about the smallness and the largeness and the loudness and the quiet that invade all our lives. Its poignancy is in watching the four actors care about one another in the midst of Gigantick emotions and staggering dimensions of a precarious and often cruel world, while clinging ardently to hope.