Old Times is a bold piece of theatre. Not only has all the action happened off-stage, it is now in the distant past. The ‘events’ are related to the audience by the characters’ imperfect 20-year-old memories. Contemporary mainstream cinema, with its big budget special effects, has normalized the audiences’ expectation that all the action must be shown on-stage, up front, and in high definition. Can a deliberately small piece of theatre, which actively obscures the action through the memories of its characters, successfully sustain the drama?
Married couple Kate (Georgia Gleason) and Deeley (Daniel Carter) are having Anna (Amalea Ruffett), an old friend of Kate’s, over for dinner. Kate hasn’t seen her in a long time and is unsure of what has happened in the intervening years, while Deeley, Kate’s husband, seems apprehensive. Is she a vegetarian now? Turns out she isn’t, and the casserole Kate prepared is suitable for the meal. As the evening progresses, the characters start bringing up their respective memories of their first meeting 20 years ago. A sense of unease builds as the past is slowly unearthed. What really were the circumstances of Kate and Deeley first meeting and falling in love? Have Deeley and Anna met before?
Old Times’ small cast made it an attractive choice for first time director Caleb Harrison, who was drawn to the idea of maximizing control over the performance. The production certainly looks like a deliberate and polished directorial effort. With the absence of a large cast to direct, Harrison has been able to focus in-depth on the individual performances, ensuring that every move across the stage, every drink being poured, and the way each character comports themselves helps tell a story.
While not an inaccessible play, those unfamiliar with Pinter’s work may find the first act a listless drama. As the characters serve each other drinks and reminisce about their time in London, there is little dramatic tension beyond Deeley’s dry cattiness and the increasing awkwardness; it feels like they all share some unspoken grievance that the audience is left to guess at. The second act, however, finds the characters on the attack and the unease quickly becomes far more uncomfortable, even creepy. Pinter’s plot may have first-time audience members running to the internet for some kind of clue as to what exactly happened on-stage, but it was actually his intention not to offer the audience anything resembling an obvious plot.
The director’s notes admit, “all the action of the play happens off-stage,” but this isn’t quite strong enough. The drama is not derived from events that have occurred off-stage, but rather from what could have potentially happened off-stage. The audience is expected to work hard to make sense of not only what is happening, but also what happened in the characters’ past. Harrison notes that in this play “memory is a weapon,” and perhaps the student audience is being invited to consider the significance their own memories will have on them in 20 years.
The cast members do an exceptional job of inhabiting their roles. Carter as Deeley functions as the play’s main fulcrum, and casts an eloquently sinister presence over the other two characters that is evocatively broken down by the play’s climax. Ruffett arrives on-stage as an abrasive, outgoing, and provocative catalyst riling up Carter’s more proper Deeley. Gleason as Kate seems sidelined in the first act but the balance of power ends up taking a surprising shift. All three manage to effectively evoke an underlying sexual tension and discomfort, and switch from aggressive to passive participants in the drama seamlessly.
Old Times aims to set a high standard for student theatre productions and succeeds. It is a strong performance of Pinter’s work, and if Pinter is ever diminished in his legacy it certainly won’t be due to productions such as this one. While the material may not satisfy all audiences, it certainly won’t outstay its welcome, and provides a great introduction to Pinter newcomers.
Old Times will run from December 4 to 7 at 8 p.m. at Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre (3485 McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students and $10 for adults. To reserve tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org.