Wife Begins at Forty Casts Comic Light on Marriage

“I have everything I want. I’m a happy man with a happy family.”

Famous last words indeed, as Upper Canada  Playhouse welcomes its newest comedy, Wife Begins At Forty, to the stage. Speaker George Harper is convinced that his 17 year old, politely stable marriage, is rock solid.

Too bad that rock is eroding.

Blessed with a strong cast of humans (and one four-footed actor) the Arne Sultan, Earl Barrett and Ray Cooney farce, set in the 1980’s, takes an irreverent look at the ups and downs, the pitfalls and yes, the joys of marriage. Judging from audience reactions, there were many in the capacity crowd who related to the Harpers.

Linda Harper, played by Alison Lawrence, brings a nice level of frustration to her role. “Living with you is like living with a machine. George, you aren’t alive. You aren’t growing. We don’t do things together.”

The thought of her approaching birthday has left her examining her staid life, and finding it wanting. “I just feel if I don’t do something now, I’ll be 40!”

Unfortunately, and hilariously, her efforts to “share” her feelings with George only lead to more frustration. He just can’t find the time for passion, and all that bother, what with memos, and bills and employees and the “busy season for artificial flowers.”

He is, consequently,  thun-derstruck at the news that Linda wants “a change.” 

Brian Young is delightful as the blinkered George Harper. He has failed to notice that his cozy little world is crumbling. Everyone around him, including his father, Bernard, and his son, Leonard,  know and accept that Linda is moving on…without George.

Even George’s efforts to explain the separation rationally and calmly to son Leonard (a typical, semi cynical teen, well played by Kyle Orzech) fall flat.

“If you and mom aren’t getting along, you should split. Move on,” Leonard comments casually, more interested in TV and soccer than marital woes.

“You callous young swine!” is George’s frustrated reaction.

Ironically, George’s final downfall takes place at the surprize party his neighbours, the Dixons, have thrown to celebrate the Harper’s anniversary. George exceeds his customary limit of two drinks (“Why that won’t even put a smile on your face,” Roger Dixon tells him.), and ends the night holding forth from the top of a grand piano, sharing tales of fighting fish, flamenco dancers, botched honeymoons and a very private operation he’s just had, with most of the neighbourhood. 

His departure from the family home is abrupt.

Roger and Betty Dixon provide a kind of comic foil to the Harper’s marriage.

Roger, played by Richard Bauer (who doubled as director of the show) is a man about town,  and unrepentant about his views of marriage. He has lots of advice for a ‘single” George, most of which horrifies him.

“Betty and I have a terrific marriage.” – Roger.

“But you’re deceiving her!” – George.

“That’s what makes it terrific!” – Roger.

Of course, Betty (the exuberant Melanie Janzen) is far from the damsel in the dark that her husband imagines. She knows of Roger’s affair with a local bar maid, “Around the golf club she’s known as the British Open…Roger’s her handicap.”  

Betty loves philanderer Roger. She accepts him. And she knows that underneath the playboy facade, he adores her.

“Marriages are made in heaven,” she tells Linda with a certain world-weary air, but they must be “lived” in the real world.

Grandpa Bernard, portrayed  with lovable confusion by Walter Learning, usually in the company of family dog, Chopper, (acted with tail-wagging enthusiasm by Chopper Thom, local boy) lends his view of life and marriage to the laughter on stage. “We got married during an air raid,” he tells his son of his 39 years with his late wife. “Our entire marriage was a kind of air raid. Compared to my wife, Hitler was a pussy cat.” But Bernard loves his family unreservedly and they know it.

The dialogue  is sharp and quick. And the characters are well drawn in Wife Begins At Forty, which is a little unusual for  traditional farce. The Harpers and Dixons are very likeable (even bon vivant Roger).

And, although I cannot describe how the plot comes out, I have to say that in Act II, Alison Lawrence and Brian Young (a real life husband and wife) have a spectacular, hilarious scene that is truly a “tour de farce”! 

This is a witty play: it understands the ups and downs of marriage, and relishes them.

Wife Begins At Forty runs until August 26 at Upper Canada Playhouse. Contact 613-543-3713 for tickets.

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