I think it’s best just to put it out there: I disliked Colleen Murphy’s latest work, The Goodnight Bird. As with many things I dislike, there was also much to admire in The Goodnight Bird and I hate to give the impression that this play was without merit entirely. A damning review overshadows the time, effort, energy, and personal investment that goes into a theatrical production and this team had all those cylinders firing. Ultimately, no matter how good your actors, your director, your sound and light crew, you can’t turn a problematic script into a better one.
The play starts as a rather witty comedy. A childless couple verging on their autumnal years settles into their new condo with a balcony and a view of the ravine (immediately, I think “Toronto”). Lily is a recently retired history professor. Morgan is recovering from a heart attack on the eve of his first breakfast meeting back at work. They moved their antiques, and their cat to this smaller residence intent on spending the next years of their lives seeing the world. “Siberia,” expounds Lily, “Open your mind.” Into their lives falls, literally, Parker Parker, a homeless man who not only interrupts their night but also their relationship.
I’d say that up until this point, The Goodnight Bird is riveting. Nicola Cavendish is delicious as Lily, an over-dramatic character who throws herself into life’s changing roles whether nursemaid, nagging wife, strict teacher, or wise prophetess. She wears her emotions on her face, expressing wifely in/tolerance with the raise of an eyebrow. Morgan (Christopher Hunt) is her sober straight man, uncomfortably stuffed into the role of an invalid by his wife’s Florence Nightingale. Hunt perfectly balances the bullish, virile masculinity of a successful executive against the cruelties of aging. His health, his sexuality, and even his job are teetering on a precipice. All in all, the situation makes for good drama, and even better comedy.
So long as Parker Parker’s (Graham Cuthbertson) arrival keeps the mood jovial, the play continues to work well. Parker Parker seeks a bandage from the terrified couple. Unsure whether to trust him or call security, they oblige his wishes and give him some much needed human interaction. The result is a wild child in the body of a grown man who runs naked around the condo.
Things start to unravel from there. Parker Parker is too unreal. He recites transcendental poetry, calls communion with the forest creatures, goes ballistic over the chemicals in a cookie, tucks and flaps his arms like a bird. As a metaphor for a missing child, he’s fine, but in a strange Freudian turn, he begins to exude a seductive, sexual power over Lily after a single moment. Watching this scene, I contemplate that maybe the play has shifted into magic realism. Is Parker Parker a forest sprite, a judging deity, Jesus Christ in disguise? Unfortunately, no.
From there, the play never recovers it earlier momentum. Things culminate in a showdown between Morgan and Lily that beats the drum far too long and to a tune that is uncharacteristic of the couple. Lily in particular transforms from a domineering wife into a rabid, almost demented individual that in no way reflects her established character. She’s given to drama, but this is a bit much. In contrast with the earlier promises of those opening scenes, things become too serious, too disjoined, and too surreal. While the final resolution is a return both to normalcy and a more coherent storyline, those interim scenes are jarring.
The Goodnight Bird has a strong cast, but ultimately doesn’t take off from a rather promising start.
The Goodnight Bird is at the Centaur Theatre until March 22. Tickets can be purchased HERE.