Theatre review: The Little Years at the Bus Stop

Matchstick Theatre's season closer runs until Sunday.


The newest production from CanCon devotee Matchstick Theatre is John Mighton’s The Little Years, directed by Matchstick’s artistic director Jake Planinc and starring Colleen MacIsaac and Christine Daniels. It follows the family of Kate (Kayla Gunn and MacIsaac), a girl who dreams of a career in theoretical mathematics, from 1957 to 2002, mainly through her relationship with her family: Her mother Alice (Mauralea Austin), an artist who gave up her dreams to instead be the perfect wife; her sister-in-law Grace (Daniels), an idealistic feminist and environmentalist; and her unseen brother, William (the poet seems to always get his way).

I feel I should mention that whenever this able-bodied, all-cis, all-white cast mentioned “privilege” I couldn’t help but laugh; nonetheless this play is achievement in casting: MacIsaac and Gunn could very well be older and younger versions of each other, and the physicality of Austin captures the passage of time with  detail and care. The dialect work, particularly that by Austin in the scenes in the 50s and 70s, is a deeply immersive experience. Daniels is like a breath of fresh air into an angsty teenager’s room. Her character experiences the most complete and emotionally complex arc in the play, and is performed with energy and clear intentions.

I don’t know what to say about the performances of Sam Vigneault, Sean Skerry and Amanda Mullally because they were on stage for a combined 10 minutes—it felt wasteful when the glimpses them were so interesting. Similarly, MacIsaac, though a demonstrably talented performer, isn’t given much to work with on an emotional level (I get it, she’s depressed, but still). Matthew Lumley’s Roger felt somewhat miscast: We are told repeatedly how condescending he is, but this is undermined by a natural warmth from his actor, which ultimately provides more nuance to a character who could easily just be “the jerk,” but causes some textual dissonance.

The entire show feels very detached emotionally. There are moments—glimpses of feeling mainly carried by Daniels, Austin and Gun—but only moments. Even the dramatic climax of the play is undermined by a needless intermission, so the only time the audience is left to marinate in our emotions is at the very end, in a heartbreaking scene where a 59-year-old Kate meets for the first time her niece, Tonya, played with skill and giddy glee by Gunn. The tiny scene is a moment of hope, a scene in which Kate recognizes that even if she was misogyny’d into a life of secretarial work, that she has laid a the groundwork for the achievements of a new generation, which I guess is some consolation.

One particularly outstanding element is the costume design by Kelsey Stanger. In a production in which the flow of time is as much a character as the humans on stage, Stanger’s costumes contribute more to the timeline of the show than any other aspect of this production.

There is an unfortunate sense of superfluity in some aspects of the direction and design. The minimalist set consists of two chairs, a table and handful of props. The most impressive aspect of the set is a cluster of disco balls hanging from the ceiling—one central ball, with nine smaller ones orbiting it (astronomy being a tangential interest within Kate’s broader passion for math and physics). The ball is diegetic and non-diegetic—it is only in one short scene, and used only as a lighting effect. The mirrored solar system is dazzling, interesting and dynamic, with Alison Crosby’s lights hitting in it time to the bass notes of the sound design by Jordan Palmer. It is beautiful, it is interesting and it is narratively empty.

A show this short with such a clear emotional arc is done a disservice by having an intermission, especially when there is no technical requirement for it. Dividing the show into two halves pulls you out from the narrative, deflating the dramatic tension like a slowly leaking balloon over the 15-minute bathroom break. Many of the scene transitions felt that they only existed to pad out the 90-minute show (and $25 ticket price), including an entirely unnecessary one at the top of the second act. 

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