Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Bethany Jillard, Irene Poole.  Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Reviewed by James Karas

What is time?

If you go to the Tarragon Theatre and see John Mighton’s The Little Years, time may mean the ninety minutes between 8:00 and 9:30, the length of the performance.

After seeing the play, you will realize that time is an extremely complex matter understood by very few ordinary mortals. Can you imagine being in one place at two different times? I mean you are 14 and 26 years old and you are in one place, meeting yourself, so to speak. That’s nothing compared to singularities and other words used by scientists to describe “what is time” or “what time is lunch?”

The abstract but complex idea of what is time can tax the best brains of the world and one might consider it as a poor backdrop for a stage play. John Mighton, who seems to be a brilliant mathematician, puts the concept of time center-stage in The Little Years.

The main character of the play is Kate whom we see at various stages of her life from age 14 to 59 and perhaps older. The play moves in fragmentary scenes and the chronology is not always clear. Young Kate (played by Bethany Jillard) is painfully awkward and caught in the attitude towards women of the 1950’s. The brilliant Kate is steered into a vocational school where she can take stenography.

Kate, however, has more serious problems than social ineptness and not being allowed to study mathematics and ending up in a dead-end job. Her problems are so serious that she ends up in a psychiatric facility. The mature Kate (played by Irene Poole) is a pathetic person, working in a job that she hates and waiting for retirement. Jillard and Poole give different aspects of the troubled genius very expertly.  

Kate’s mother Alice does not know quite what to do with her troubled daughter because she cannot see past the social limitations of her time. We see Chick Reid as a young woman with teenage children and as Alice in a nursing home. Fine work by Reid in the role.

Kate’s aunt Grace (Pamela Sinha) is an interesting character. She is seems to understand Kate but cannot really help her. She has found her own way of surviving the social strictures of the time. She is a free spirit to some extent and creates her own life while her celebrated husband William travels around promoting his work and himself.

William is Kate’s brother and perhaps the most interesting character after Kate. We never see him but his shadow is always visible. He is a famous and successful poet who travels all over the world. He is the antithesis of Kate. Is it because of different attitudes towards boys in the 1950’s or partly because of his mother’s attitude towards him or because he has a different personality?

We do meet Roger (Ari Cohen), the Barry Manilow of artists, who is ridiculed by Kate as an asshole and as a shallow person. He falls between the arrested development of Kate and the glowing success of William as a middle-of-the-road painter who enjoys ephemeral success. He becomes depressed as he considers what will be left of his work in the long run.

The play hangs its proverbial coat on the lives of its characters with a backdrop of complex ideas about time, space and art. I cannot say that the abstract ideas and the human beings of the play are married happily in order to produce a very good play and a very good production. Nevertheless, this is highly intelligent and provocative theatre.

Director Chris Abraham and Set and Costume Designer Julie Fox turn the seating area of the Tarragon Theatre into an L shape and the stage has a bright white floor and a few props. We go through a number of decades until an old Kate meets her niece Tanya (played by Jillard). This young lady is her father William’s daughter in attitude with Aunt Kate’s brains and a different social milieu.  Unlike Kate, Tanya is allowed to study mathematics and get all the awards and rewards for her brilliance that her aunt never saw. We are back at the beginning.

How times have changed.

The Little Years by John Mighton opened on November 14 and will run until December 16, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.




  1. Uh... okay. Except for one recast, it the SAME production as this:

    Amazing how "shallow" has gone to "intelligent and provocative".

    1. Dear Anonymous - you are quite right. I reserve the right to view productions on second and third viewing from different angles, concentrate on different arguments and reach complementary conclusions. The abstract ideas and huamn beings do not make a very good play or a very good production, but if you concentrate on the ideas, they are quite provocative.

      Many thanks for noticing. Arguing about productions is the next best thing to going to the theatre.