Off the Grid – rambunctious comedy playing at local Opera House

By Constance Scrafield

The Opening Night audience adored the premiere of John Spurway’s Off the Grid, running now until April 14 at Theatre Orangeville.

Asked what she loved particularly about the play, one lady replied, “Well, he channelled my husband, for a start.”

To possibly explain this remark, when the play’s married couple, Len and Martha, arrive for a doubtful week to a house that is off the grid, the sparring and debates between them certainly echoed in the minds of many. In fact, during the course of one discussion, we finally learn, humorously, the “scientific reason” why a man only ever hears a portion of what any woman tells him.

Enlightenment all ’round.

Here is the foundation of the plot: Martha, an architect with an new-found passion for designing good, decent buildings that run off the grid or nearly so, has been offered the chance to spend a week in such a house as research for a magazine article. Naturally, she persuades husband Len to go with her. Len is a loans officer with a bank, which occupation carries more complications than one might normally expect.

As the two walk in to this very basic dwelling, she declares it “unbelievable!” [good].

Considering the six hours it took them to drive there, Len, a fan of all things comfortable and convenient, enters the same building and declares it “unbelievable!” [not good].

The other reasons for their coming to the remote and unplugged are to melt away the stresses of daily life in the city and to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. Well, there are other issues too.

They discuss all the caveats about staying, even a short time, in such a distant place and agree to tough it out, hoping it will not be as bad as Len fears, when there is a knock on the door (“shave-and-a-hair-cut”). Enter Lowell, their nearby neighbour, who is delighted to see them, to see someone, staying in that house.

Lowell has been living on his own in this wilderness for the last two years. Not surprisingly, he has issues too but nothing is what it seems with him. Lowell is not merely an eccentric recluse.

Welcome back to Robin Schisler, after a long absence from our theatre, doing plenty of acting in theatre and film. Last time she was here, she was in the 2004 production of A Christmas Story, playing Mother, with Orangeville’s own Colin Simmons as Ralphie. He is since a performing arts graduate of Sheridan College of some years and is at Stratford and doing much more.

Jeffrey Wetsch is so happy to be playing at Theatre Orangeville for the first time and on stage again, following a long stint doing television and film. He loves the collaboration between actors that only happens in live theatre.

Together, they are lovely as the loving but wedged couple, looking for something good to happen between them and, as individuals, searching for new directions. Between couples, communication is key and this has ebbed for sure. They are very funny with their banter and the come-and-go with Lowell, who is not always clear in his meaning. There are moments when he leads us all astray and the bounce back is hilarious.

Stephen Sparks does, as he does so well, make us fall in love with Lowell, while we begin to actually fear him a little. Unpredictable and changeable, our questions and doubts about Lowell increase as the story unfolds.

A simple but complete interior of the house, all apparently pine, as such a house might be, designed by Beckie Morris, Set Designer and Production Manager, is exactly the best backdrop for the action at the front. Great to look at and versatile for the actors, her sets never distract but always augment the story, giving it a home in which to be the best it can be.

Nice lighting by designer Wendy Lundgren, providing the “mood” as it is needed.

With David Nairn at the helm as Director, the clarity of the characters comes shining through. His balance of directing, between keeping out the way enough and asking the right questions about the characters, as the actors develop them, inevitably results in performances that ring true. It is wonderful to watch.

During the preview interview with the cast and playwright John Spurway, he told the Citizen, “I think people will go away saying, I saw a little bit of myself in those characters.”

By what we heard from audience members, it was, evidently, even better than that.

Off the Grid is a premier presentation at Theatre Orangeville, playing until April 14.