Song, dance and
Rock Hudson: The Way Back to ThursdaY
by Drew Rowsome
The weather may be sub-zero but The Way Back to Thursday is heartwarming enough to suffuse through one's entire body. Situated somewhere between the billed song cycle and an actual musical, The Way Back to Thursday is a simple story beautifully told. Cameron, energetically performed by the composer/writer Rob Kempson, has just been ditched by his boyfriend and longs for the comfort of his beloved grandmother, incarnated by Astrid Van Wieren. Specifically for the comfort of sharing in viewing her treasured old movies. Even more specifically the "movies where they all fall in love." The only complication is his fear, a fear that drove a wedge between them years ago, that she will reject him for his sexuality. It's a slim premise to hinge an evening on, but the songs are strong enough and the performances are powerful and, while we never really empathize with Cameron's dilemma, we certainly believe it and, though there are no plot surprises, it is a wonderful journey.
A plot outline makes The Way Back to Thursday sound potentially maudlin and in the wrong hands it certainly could be. The Way Back to Thursday would make an award-grabbing vehicle for an actress of a certain age - imagine Elaine Stritch or Betty White chewing the scenery and belting songs into showstoppers - but Astrid Van Wieren is too clever. She uses her powerful voice and engaging presence to create a delicate portrait grounded in a solid strength. It is hard to buy such a youthful energy and appearance in the guise of an elderly woman - Van Wieren's voice grows stronger as the character ages and the audience is eager to hear it unleashed and ecstatic when it is - but as the grandmother sings in "Without John" she is, post-divorce, happy to "Do yoga, play tennis, drink scotch." She is the dream grandmother and it is a dream of a performance.
Kempson's part is more showy and, when the lead is also the villain, trickier. Dressed as a five-minutes-ago-fashionable gay hipster Cameron's heartbreak is played for laughs but when he reverts to childhood the audience is charmed. A comic coming-out ode to Rock Hudson is a masterful highlight and the childhood struggle - "Will I have to wear sparkly pants? - is deftly brought to life. It's harder to believe as he ages - he "lives in denial out west with these men who don't mean that much to me" - but again the performance is so strong, and the melodies so catchy, the lyrics so witty, that the audience is swept along. There is only one moment near the end where The Way Back to Thursday tips into pathos for a stanza before righting itself and reverting to emotional honesty.
The Way Back to Thursday explores where "white lies" - yes, the grandmother does have a minor dilemma of a secret as well - escalate into tragic consequences. But it is done so with such gentle humour - except for gibes at Vancouver and gay male self-absorption which are both vivisected quite accurately - and musical aplomb that the characters live, breathe and the audience is entertained, moved and charmed. Spending every Thursday in such company would be a delight.
The Way Back to Thursday continues until Sat, Feb 8 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. passemuraille.on.ca