Ablaze - a brief flare

Ablaze: Rosa Laborde and Jayne Collins play sisters with bite

Maybe it should be called the Sixth Sense effect. For the third review in a row, I feel obligated to issue a spoiler warning for something that happens in the final reel – er last scene – that impacts on the whole work. Fortunately, there’s no bloodshed involved in the reveal that is meant to unlock meaning in this three-hander.

Not that there isn’t a death in Ablaze. And it’s not giving anything away to reveal that irreverent, wise-as-the-hills Grannie is about to die because, the whole play is a slightly mawkish deathwatch on the old bird (played well by Nicky Guadagni). Anna (Rosa Laborde), the prodigal granddaughter, returns to Newfoundland from the bright lights of Boston and a successful career as a concert violinist in order to witness Nana’s final exit. As soon as she arrives home Anna is confronted by her sister Ellen (Jayne Collins, also the playwright), another, and probably equally talented, violinist who has chosen to stay on the Rock, care for Nana and, you know, be the dutiful martyr-granddaughter.

I’m far from an expert but the successful daughter’s return to the homestead seems to be a staple of the so called “women’s films” genre. Collins wisely spares us the hugs and exclamations of “you’re the best sister ever” by ending on an emotional highpoint: the sisters co-operate and play a song their dying grandmother longed to hear: Ellen on the violin, Anna singing. It was a poignant moment with great impact.

Anna singing? Yes, that’s the twist: Anna has somehow damaged her shoulder and for two years she has been unable to play. So desperate has she become that she even operated on herself (!). If my brother told me he’d operated on his own shoulder, I think I would have at least said “you what?” but Ellen seems largely unfazed. Furthermore, the reveal happens when – I think – Anna has thrown her violin on the fire. For a musician, this must be akin to some sort of self-immolation but it passes with nary a response from her sister (and fortunately wise-old Nana has stored all their old violins in a kitchen cupboard).

Anna’s revelation comes, literally, two minutes before the end and jolts the story to life. Withholding key plot points seems to be endemic in scripts at the moment (hence, the Sixth Sense effect), as if last moment revelation unlocks deep meaning to what has gone before. For me, it’s a bit of cop-out – a way of making up for a work that has not gone deep enough and I suspect that Collins has the ability to go deeper. Anna’s revelation is where the story should have started, not ended. I want to understand the implications of this personal tragedy to this young woman. I want to know how Ellen copes with this information: simple sisterly love or would she be almost pleased at this turn of events? For my taste, Ablaze gives too much stage time to Nana. If she were a great and original creation, this might be acceptable but narratively she’s completely static: her only purpose is to die, which we know is slowly coming towards us like a bus caught in rush hour traffic.

The true fire in Ablaze is the relationship between the two sisters. There is an argument that ends the first scene that has real bite. It has bite because of the performances of Laborde and Collins and also because there is something clearly at stake in the script. When Nana is wheeled out in her hospital bed, those stakes are muted because we have to listen to her irreverent – yet still wise - pronouncements. From the program, it would seem that Nana is a homage to Collin’s real grandmother, which is a lovely gesture but Collins wants to make art and sometimes hard decisions are required. We can learn all we need to know about Nana’s impact on the two women through their dialogue and interactions. You know what I would do? I would have Nana die before Anna’s arrival. Now imagine how the prodigal granddaughter will handle that guilt?

Ablaze by Jayne Collins; Directed by Elizabeth Helmers; Presented by Theatre in Her Shoes; Featuring Jayne Collins, Nicky Guadagni, Rosa Laborde. Part of the 2008 SummerWorks Festival. No remaining performances but more information is still here.

By Andrew Templeton