A simultaneously sweet and sad flight of fantasy that views the adult world of troubles through the eyes of a 10-year-old on her "last day of childhood," is receiving its U.S. premiere at MetroStage.
"Girl in the Goldfish Bowl" is a beautifully written piece of theater, one which Carolyn Griffin's company is giving a touching and delightfully funny production under the direction of Gregg Henry. It features a pair of memorable leading performances and fine work by the cast of five.
The play is by Morris Panych of Canada — well-known on his native soil, but less well-known here. The play was given the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award, the second time Panych has won this most prestigious award in his home country.
The jury that picked this play for that award said "Metaphorical, imaginative, profoundly complex, 'Girl in the Goldfish Bowl' makes you laugh from its hysterical beginnings to its heart-breaking conclusion."
Judging from this production, that was a good description.
The laughs begin with the first image, that of Susan Lynskey as a 10-year-old girl wearing swimming goggles in order to get in touch with the world of her recently deceased goldfish. She proceeds to conduct a funeral for the dearly departed pet — since her mother flushed the corpse down the toilet, she buries a frozen fish stick instead.
With imagery like this, you might think some sort of theater of the absurd evening is in store, but Panych's eloquent, often poetic language — as well as his sense of humor and the tightly drawn plot — keep the piece in touch with the real world of real people.
LYNSKEY HAS MOST, but certainly not all, of the great lines in the play. She gets to deliver serious observations such as a definition of growing up ("the moment you stop being happy and start remembering when you used to be happy") as well as comic ones like "personally, I find the sight of male genitals extremely disappointing."
A 10-year-old commenting on male genitalia fits in the play because Lynsky's character has discovered a man washed up on the beach who she thinks may be her fish reincarnated. He's first seen in the show wearing only her father's bathrobe, which she has given him after removing the rags he wore when she found him.
Michael Russotto gives a fabulously inventive performance as the mysterious man who has difficulty remembering his past, and even more difficulty communicating his current thoughts as he is drawn into the turmoil among the mother (a splendid Kathleen Coons), father (the superb Bobby Smith) and their constantly tippling border, played with a fine semblance of a disturbed sense of balance by Susan Ross.
The havoc this strange stranger wreaks on the home life of an already dysfunctional family is the driver of the plot of the play, but the fundamental good sense of the child's view offers some hope. It is that clinging to hope that makes the final resolution of the story so affecting.
Nicholas Vaughan designed a set that seems at first to be predominantly flat back wall with a staircase and some living room furniture. However, as events unfold, panels in the wall become transparent to reveal the events in more private rooms of the house.
The use of those panels draws a complex but extremely efficient lighting design from John Burkland. Spotlight operator LA Mcdonald is an indispensable part of the team as well, for many scenes rely on small, sharply focused spots of light to draw attention to the proper place on stage and prevent premature revelation of events behind the panels. The gurgle of bubbles in William Burns' sound design help set and maintain the mood as well.
Our theater community has seen some memorable productions of some of the finest of the new crop of Canadian plays. "Mary's Wedding" at The Theater Alliance, "The Drawer Boy" at Round House and "For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" right here at MetroStage last year come to mind. Now, add to the list "The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl."
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.