September 22, 2008

Question: How can you make a dated play interesting? Answer: Feed it to the Mint Machine. Just look at the reclamation job they’ve done on “The Glass Cage,” J. B. Priestley’s 1957 “problem play” about the generational clash between the convention-bound elders of a prosperous Canadian family and the three young black sheep who challenge their bedrock values. Treating this moribund material to a vigorous production is only the half of it. Among other ancillary offerings, post-performance talks, a documentary film, and a well-stocked library cushion the play in its historical context, making it relevant and enjoyable for modern auds.

Thanks to the intelligent prep job, auds go into the show knowing Priestley penned this drama partly in response to the bitterly nihilistic plays being written during this period by John Osborne and other Angry Young Men of post-war England. He, too, could write angry diatribes for a young generation challenging the complacency of its elders.

The grand old man of letters didn’t exactly give up his thematic grip on the manners and mores of his beloved Edwardian era. His play is set in 1906, in the Toronto household of a staid old family ruled with an iron hand by David McBane (Gerry Bamman, in a perfect piece of casting). In this stuffy atmosphere (efficiently conveyed by the symbolically weighted props assembled by Deborah Gaouette), Priestley is still free to take his well-mannered swipes at middle-class hypocrisy and cant.

The characters are every bit as familiar as their social milieu. In addition to Bamman’s pompous, self-righteous pater familias (who presides over family prayers and delivers a weekly sermon to the captive household), there’s the sleek, slightly unsavory younger brother (ever-presentable Jack Wetherall, looking like he’s just deflowered a virgin) and the widowed sister-in-law (purse-lipped Robin Moseley), who disapproves of just about everything.

The younger generation consists of an innocent, but eager young daughter (Sandra Struthers-Clerc) and her dull swain (Chad Hoeppner), a theology student. And let’s not forget the faithful family doctor (Chet Carlin, very much in his element) and the cowed servants.

But while these characters are all stereotypes (and fully defined as such by the cut of the clothes supplied by Camille Assaf), the actors don’t play them that way — a genuine directorial triumph for helmer Lou Jacob.

Into this stodgy household bursts an unruly trio of young hellions — the half-caste progeny of a younger (now deceased) brother who ran off to the north woods where he met and married their Indian mother. Douglas (Aaron Krohn), Angus (Saxon Palmer) and Jean (Jeanine Serralles) McBride are no breath of fresh air to sweep out the family cobwebs, but a gale force threatening to blow the house down.

Priestley has acknowledged writing “The Glass Cage” for Canadian thesps Barbara Chilcott and her two brothers, Murray and Donald Davis, captivated as he was by the bold manners and physical vitality of their New World personas. While Palmer and Krohn, and the extremely watchable Serralles in particular, play these anti-establishment figures with brash energy, their glowering anger conveys no real threat of danger.

So, while the interlopers flaunt their sexuality and smoke and drink and play loud music, there’s no genuine air of menace behind their provocative charms. Nothing that hasn’t been suggested more subtly by Roger Hanna’s confining set design of gilded pipes and glowering gas lamps. Now, that’s creepy.