David Yee’s play about poets Al Purdy and Milton Acorn and Purdy’s famous A-Frame house in Prince Edward County is a moving look at artistic creation
among men by David Yee (Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst). Until May 15. Pay what you can afford ($10 to $60). theatrefactory.ca. Evaluation: NNNN
If the prospect of watching two men recite poetry, drink heavily, and pound the floor sounds boring, think again. David Yee took a footnote from Canadian literature and created a raucous, lively, gritty…and hugely moving piece. So far, in a very unusual theatrical season in Toronto, this is one of the most pleasant surprises to date.
The two men are poets Al Purdy (Ryan Hollyman) and Milton Acorn (Carlos Gonzalez Vio). It’s the late 1950s and the friends are holed up in what would become Purdy’s legendary A-Frame cabin on Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County, which I must point out was not the hip neighborhood and overpriced as it is today.
As Joanna Yu’s evocative decor suggests, the house isn’t finished yet. There are holes in the floor, beams sticking out of nowhere, and the walls are partly stuffed with old newspapers. Acorn, a skilled carpenter, is the most skilled worker. But Purdy distributes coffee and liquor and makes eggs.
Gradually, we realize that these two artists are not yet complete either. They are years away from becoming the Governor General’s Award-winning poets – often individually dubbed “the people’s poets” – that they will later become. Purdy tries unsuccessfully to sell plays to the CBC, while Acorn has written three collections but has little money and no prestige. Both from working-class backgrounds, they don’t care about the literary establishment.
What’s so unusual about the play is that even though nothing major is happening in terms of plot, it’s still engaging. As they both work at the cabin, or roll newspapers to fuel the wood stove that heats the room, they talk…and talk. Acorn exposes the connection between eggs and a person’s bourgeois status; Purdy talks about his failed attempt to run a taxi company. Occasionally, the two try to trick each other into reciting poems to see if the other recognizes them. The pleasure that each man takes in saying these lines says everything that needs to be known about their love of language and their poetic vocation.
Yee plants little information that may or may not pay off later. We learn, for example, that Acorn lost part of his hearing during World War II. For some reason, Purdy is estranged from his wife, Eurithe, who also worked on the cabin. In a bit of literary gossip, Purdy also mentions that young poet Gwendolyn MacEwan might be interested in the lonely, neglected acorn. (Literary types will know the two are getting married later.)
What emerges from this casual-sounding but carefully structured scenario is the strong bond that unites the two men. They both recognize each other’s talents and they understand – but don’t have to articulate – each other’s demons, the things that are holding them back.
Nina Lee Aquino’s direction enhances the production. The way it will often show the men mechanically drinking during transition scenes says a lot about the male bond – it’s hinted at in the title, after all – while Christopher Stanton’s sound design and compositions beautifully highlight key moments. . The way Michelle Ramsay’s lighting marks pieces of crumpled paper hanging from the ceiling adds weight and mystery to the story.
If I have reservations, it’s that the play isn’t really about the elephant in the play: the homoeroticism implicit in the situation, even if it’s mentioned a few times. Near the start, Acorn recounts a steamy dream in which a young Michael Ondaatje sucks him off during a reading; and Purdy himself speculates what the two must look like to neighbors. (How interesting it would have been to hear the two talk about Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl, for example, which they must have known.)
In Yee’s storyline, Purdy took down Acorn multiple times for his friendliness, which Gonzalez Vio and his smoldering appearance can’t quite make you believe. The actor also delivers a bold, if not compelling East Coast accent. Other than those two minor things, however, his Acorn is inspired and passionate, the poet’s talents held back only by his insecurities. Hollyman has the quietest role, and he’s wonderful, whether it’s laughing in a scene in which Purdy has a construction accident and tries to cover it up, or in a scene in which he tells the most bottom of his life. His admiration for his friend’s talent is sincere and moving.
On one level, Yee’s piece is a metaphor for the mysterious and difficult process of artistic creation. There is poetic justice that this is the last play Lee Aquino directs as artistic director of the Factory Theatre. During her 10-year tenure, she oversaw some of the finest art the city has seen. She will soon be moving to the National Arts Center in Ottawa where she will lead the English Theater Division. She will be missed by theatergoers in Toronto.