Most people are routine orientated. They’re how we structure our lives and ourselves, form new habits or get rid of old ones. Routines are how we show our productivity, our values, and how we work towards our dreams. That’s why they’ve been a cornerstone of addiction recovery for decades, baked into the rhetoric along with the Twelve Steps to help newly sober people reorder and rebuild their lives.
Gail (Jane Phegan) arrives like any other day, first into the church basement to begin setting up the chairs and refreshments for their AA meeting. Slowly the rest of the Coffee Committee strolls in: Nicole (Alex Malone) who is glowing with the thrill of her pregnancy, Ron (Tim McGarry) who is as cantankerous as ever, and now a new-comer Tim (Tim Walker) who doesn’t have much to say yet. They have all been meeting in this basement for many years, developing the kind of intimate bonds common amongst members of groups for recovering addicts. While it might seem monotonous, the routine of the Coffee Committee is safe and comfortable for them so when Gail receives a text message out of the blue from her estranged granddaughter, it appears innocuous, perhaps good even, for Gail to strike up a textual relationship with her. But then her daughter (Ariadne Sgouros) comes in with a hard reminder that there’s a reason they all come to these meetings; some actions can’t be forgiven.
Adam Bock’s script opened with a series of realistic scenes of the Coffee Committee entering, arranging the coffee and chairs through conversation, exiting, and re-entering to do it again for the next meeting. The coffee got made in the large metal percolator, the sugar was taken out of the cupboard and then put back, the chairs were stacked and unstacked over and over again in a steady rhythm underneath the developing lives of the characters. However, Gail was undeniably the central figure of the script with an unusually long monologue placed near the end of the script in which she unpacked her history of addiction in order to contextualise the explosive entrance of her daughter in the following scene. This structure was jarring to say the least, but it also seriously undercut the delicate social dynamics of the first half of the script to turn the production’s entire attention to Gail and Gail alone.
Director Kim Hardwick attempted to compensate the other characters in choreographed transitions between early scenes which saw one character remain behind in a low spotlight for a moment of quiet contemplation as the stage hands arranged costumes and furniture around them. Similarly, the production design by Martin Kinnane, which realistically constructed the bare utilitarian space of a church basement, created a neutral backdrop for the characters to engage with familiarly like a team of ants, each with a role to perform. But neither of these choices in staging countered the severely unbalanced script which appeared to aim for profundity but ended with disorientation.
Despite the lopsided scripting, the cast gave expert performances with fine attention to the details of social interaction and the subtle considerations of each character’s life outside the meeting room. Malone’s portrayal of Nicole balanced her youthful hope and naivety against the character’s personal experience of the disappointing and darker sides of life. Hers was a nuanced performance of veiled denial that was compelling and complex. Ron and Tim were most brilliantly revealed in a brief moment of compassion between McGarry and Walker when Tim had a breakdown all too familiar to the other members of the Coffee Committee. But undoubtably Phegan’s performance dominated the emotional arc of the production. Playing Gail as a bit of a Mother Goose, a bit of a lost soul unmoored from her family, Phegan demonstrated phenomenal control of a difficult character. Gail was at once hard and vulnerable, gruff and warm, heartbroken and heartbreaking as she bore her life through immense grief and guilt. An incredible performance.
Bock’s script was originally produced in 2019 but it captures a specific tonality that has come to the fore during the 2020 COVID-19 global outbreak and the subsequent years, a feeling of lulling fear, nearing a kind of stagnant denial of great, unfathomable change. The characters of Before the Meeting have lost precious things in their lives and yet the threat looms that there is still more to be lost. There are more opportunities ahead to make mistakes, maybe the same ones or maybe ones they couldn’t even fathom today. But rather than succumb to that fear, they have their routine, their mantras, that allow at least enough room amongst the palpable despair for a step forward.
Even with some missteps including an odd script structure, prolonged scene transitions, and a distracting sound design of looped urban ambient noise, Before the Meeting is striving for a truthful storytelling that comes through most in the highly skilled performances.
Before the Meeting is running at the Seymour Centre from May 21st – June 11th
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