The Affections of May
Review by Sean McQuaid
Years ago, your weather-beaten wordsmith was lunching with a visiting grad school chum in downtown Charlottetown. I exchanged greetings with various friends and acquaintances in the street en route, then did the same with other familiar folk inside the restaurant. My increasingly incredulous dining companion eventually asked me: “What are you, the mayor or something?”
It’s all part of the joys of small-town living, I explained, where everybody knows everybody. Folks “from away” might find this charming and amusing or baffling and unsettling, depending on their perspective—and both perspectives are on display in The Affections of May, Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s oft-produced romantic comedy, newly remounted at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.
Quirkily sunny May Henning (played here by Marlene Handrahan) and her self-absorbed spouse Brian (Robert Clarke) give up good jobs in the big city to open a bed-and-breakfast in small-town Grogan’s Cove, trying to resuscitate their moribund marriage. May loves their new life but Brian hates it, callously deserting May for his old job and an old flame back in the city. The suddenly single May attracts two rival suitors: socially awkward banker Hank (Gord Gammie) and hard-drinking, hard-luck handyman Quinn (Cameron MacDuffee).
Much of what happens next is predictable in terms of who May ends up with and how, but there’s chuckles aplenty to be had along the way. Foster’s funny, inventive script builds a world of amusing small-town eccentrics pleasantly reminiscent of Newhart, albeit with a dark underbelly that fuels some of the play’s more dramatic moments as the story develops.
Foster treats all his characters with some measure of respect or affection or both, making them more relatable. Even the appallingly selfish Brian is believable and understandable in terms of making a case for how and why he acts the way does, and all three corners of the love triangle spawned by his departure are sympathetic in their own way.
Director Catherine O’Brien’s solid production has much to recommend it—fun and familiar music choices, artfully composed blocking, designer David Antscheri’s handsomely convincing set, and most especially the cast: the same fantastic quartet featured in The 39 Steps also star in this show, and there’s a really smooth chemistry and comic timing between them. They all play their May parts well, especially Gammie.
Gammie’s line delivery and body language make Hank a memorably distinctive, wincingly awkward, winningly sympathetic and often hilarious presence, sometimes without even saying a word. His tortured attempt at small talk with Clarke’s Brian, for instance, is a priceless slow-motion train wreck, and it helps make Harbourfront’s Affections of May a comedic highlight of the summer.