Colleen Curran’s True Nature, which opened the Centaur ‘s Theatre season, is really an academic lecture about Mary Anning, the obscure 19th century fossil hunter, disguised as a play.
It is also a sophomoric variation on an increasingly familiar theme involving neurotic baby-boomers torn between romantic commitment and a career. True Nature appears to have grown out of a series of focus groups that came up with a cross-section of characters designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. So you have Anna, the earnest, feminist academic who is fascinated by Anning, the Victorian “princess of paleontology” who discovered the first Plesiosaur and who incidentally, was the inspiration for the toungue-twister, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
Then there’s Mitch, Anna’s clueless but sincere love interest; Simon, the stereotypically gay confident; Mimi, Mitch’s brassy Jewish sister, and Robin, Anna’s unmarried friend to whom the stork comes knocking just as she thinks she’s over the hill. The personal lives of this extended family are occasionally funny but strangely disconnected, the dialogue for the most part banal. Curran propels the action mechanically according to the conventions of a romantic comedy. In this case, a spat over whether Anna should accept a a six month fellowship to pick fossils in England is enough to threaten the budding romance. Who would have thought such a simple decision in the age of instant communication and video-chat could sustain a plot and cause so much angst?
The cast, for the most part, is capable. Leni Parker carrys the role of Anna with intelligence and conviction. Bruce Dinsmore is miscast as her Jewish boyfriend. Michel Perron as Simon, the gay neighbour, fields some of the best lines. Felicia Shulman is delightfully over the top as the ever - kevetching Mimi. Mary Harvey doesn’t really have much to do except bounce around on an exercise ball. The production is, however, stylish with a couple of wryly amusing scenes and dashes of visual flair, especially a scene in which the ghosts of Mary Anning haunt Mitch. Director Amanda Kellock has a solid grip on the slippery material. James Lavoie’s set is something of a miracle when you consider it accommodates about a dozen scene changes in a play that runs for almost two hours without an intermission , scenes that include three different apartment settings, a lecture hall, a museum, a beach scene, a hockey game at the Bell Centre, not to mention the cliffs of Lyme Regis in Dorset.
The question though, remains. Why did the Centaur choose such a disappointing season opener? Was it in response to the Women’s Caucus of the Playwrights Guild of Canada who last year complained Canadian theatres weren’t producing enough plays by Canadian female playwrights in Canada. Curran is a local playwright, but True Nature is not the best argument in favour of affirmative action. A play about Mary Anning? Now, that might be something for Curran to consider.
True Nature is at the Centaur until Nov. 6.