When playwrights try their hand at writing murder mysteries, they are almost inevitably attempting to build a better Mouse-trap, the Agatha Christie success that has been attracting worldwide audiences since she wrote it in 1952. And When I Wake, currently at the Bastion Theatre in Victoria—it will also run at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax later this season—has many of the requisite ingredients of a classic whodunit: secret rooms, locked passageways and more things going bump in the night than a fitful couple in a single bed. Despite his pedestrian dialogue and inadequate characterizations, Toronto author James W. Nichol has still created an intricate latticework of threat and mystery which turns explosive in the fastpaced second act.
The play opens silently but with powerful visual effect: against a black backdrop, the lights outline the skeletal white beams of a ramshackle Northern Ontario manse, once owned by the shadowy Ridgeway family. The Waters family, Marci (Goldie Semple), Terry (Peter Hall) and their 12-year-old daughter, Dawn (Kitty Byers), decide to rent it for a summer holiday. For Marci, formerly a West Coast hippie, and her sniping, jealous husband, Terry, it is a chance to get out of Toronto and patch up their tattered marriage. But when Terry returns to the city to clean up some unfinished business, the terror begins for mother and daughter—with a little help from the neighbors.
Semple carries the play with flair and vigor, and the story unfolds in a quick series of vignettes: while Marci copes with strange faces in the window and weird noises outside, upstairs a ghoulish old man appears from behind a locked closet door as her daughter sleeps. Subtly, the playwright seems to strike a nerve with parents in the audience—the fear of their children being molested behind their backs, perhaps even as they sit in the theatre.
As neighbor Wilson Kyle, Stephen Hair gives an annoying performance of a Northern Ontario hick who drinks too much and thinks too little. Director Raymond Clarke has let Kyle drift into caricature but otherwise has steered the production through a sometimes choppy sea of inconsistencies. As blood and dead bodies fill the stage, the play crashes to a powerful close in a wave of psychic terror. -JANE O’HARA
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