Jack Hodgins theatre adaptation rolls full steam ahead

Culture Theatre
Stella Delaney (Susie Mullen) looks on as her husband, Spit (Clayton Jevne), fixates on a recording of his old steam engine. Photo provided by Theatre Inconnu.

Theatre Inconnu’s latest offering is a brand-new reworking of a West Coast classic. Spit Delaney’s Island reimagines the title story of Jack Hodgins’ 1976 collection of the same name, now adapted for the stage by veteran playwright Charles Tidler.

The play revolves around Spit Delaney, an aging Vancouver Island man whose life has begun to disintegrate. The change occurs when he has to give up a (highly obsolete) steam engine that he’s operated at a pulp mill for decades. He rages against “Old Number One” being sent to a “goddamn Ottawa museum,” but to no avail. Spit begins to cleave to a tape recording of the sound of his puffing engine, sneaking in little listens when he thinks no one is around.

If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. The writer, director, and star have amplified the absurdities in Hodgins’ story, making Spit’s affliction look alternately childish, bizarre, and preposterously self-absorbed. This is a wise artistic decision, because the material might otherwise look pretty bleak.

Spit is played to crusty perfection by Theatre Inconnu founder and artistic director Clayton Jevne. He oscillates between scowling threateningly and grinning impishly as he lashes out at those around him. Sometimes he’s overtaken by a far-off, melancholy stare that makes him look completely unreachable — gazing off, past the audience, he declares, “no one sees Spit Delaney.” Jevne pulls off the essential trick of conveying Delaney’s existential crisis, hidden as it is behind a blue-collar, rough exterior. Spit is trying in vain to suffer in secret, and it’s compelling to behold.

As Spit’s long-suffering wife Stella, Susie Mullen hits all the right notes of exasperation and alarm as she watches her husband slowly and inexplicably unravel. The audience can’t help but empathize with Stella. She calls out Spit on his BS with devastating succinctness, and gets plenty of laughs for it.

Kudos are also due to Catriona Black and Perry Burton, who handle the remainder of the cast. Burton manages to inhabit every character he plays, which is no small feat, considering this includes Spit’s know-it-all son Jon, his flatulent, hard-drinking roommate Marsten, and even an archetypal snooty French waiter. Black is equally versatile, playing Spit’s insecure daughter Cora, Stella’s flighty Irish cousin, and her wacky crone of a mother. Black also takes on the difficult role of Phemie Porter, a quasi-supernatural drifter-poet, who might finally help Spit regain some stability in his life.

Theatre Inconnu’s self-described “intimate and informal” space is a good venue for a play about personal struggle and domestic discord, and director Karen Lee Pickett uses it well. With its limited options, the production team accomplishes some very interesting effects. When Spit listens to the tape of his beloved train, it plays over the speakers, engulfing the entire audience in the same way it overtakes him. Elsewhere, to signal a flashback, the lighting and sound abruptly flare as Spit utters the word “pop!”

Tidler’s script is very faithful to Hodgins’ original. The story still coheres nicely on stage, but sometimes Hodgins’ rich language and symbolism risk getting lost in the comic mix; the audience may even feel perplexed at times. Another weakness is that the play might resonate more with older audiences who remember the Vancouver Island of Spit’s time, when both hippies and urbanity began to flood in, and every kind of border began to feel less defined.

Altogether though, Spit Delaney’s Island is a little play with a lot of charm, a new take on a piece of West Coast history. It doesn’t hurt that every seat in the house is within spitting distance of the stage.

Spit Delaney’s Island runs Dec. 3–19 at 8 pm, with Saturday matinees on the 5,12, and 19. Theatre Inconnu is located at 1923 Fernwood Road, across from the Belfry Theatre. Find out more at theatreinconnu.com/2015/01/spit-delaneys-island/.