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Saturday, 11/14/98

Nothing's Norbal about this family


For anyone who has ever tried to build a Norman Rockwell family Christmas out of bricks more suited to a Norman Bates' motel -- and who amongst us hasn't? -- The Norbals may well be the hottest theatre ticket in town.

Written by Manitoba's Brian Drader, Canadian Stage's production of The Norbals opened Thursday night at the St. Lawrence Centre, coincidental with its Winnipeg opening.

It's Christmas -- or rather Winter Solstice -- in the Norbal household and, as they have for the past decade, the extended Norbal is preparing to gather at Daniel's home.

Played by Geoffrey Bowes, Daniel is, in no particular order, a dutiful son, a sometimes-successful stockbroker, a husband, a father and an up-tight, controlling prig who finds his extended family a bit of a trial.

Mind you, who can blame him? His family includes a narcoleptic brother (Tom Barnett), a transsexual brother (Glyn Thomas) who is this close to becoming his sister and a third brother (Richie Favalaro) who is addicted to morphine.

Then, of course, there are the parents; a chirpy, relentlessly up-beat and thoroughly loveable dingbat of a mother (Marion Gilsenan) and an eccentric, snap-happy father (Dan MacDonald).

Factor in the brothers' spouses, partners and assorted live-ins -- a happy but frazzled housewife (Janet-Laine Green), a new-age feminist Buddhist (Lynne Cormack) and a Jewish lesbian with a buzz-cut (Kelli Fox) -- and it's a group that definitely pushes the family envelope.

Under the direction of Katherine Kaszas, The Norbals is a family holiday that is nothing if not memorable, fraught with the things that families do so well: Getting on each other's nerves, fighting, feuding, drinking, dissing and otherwise wreaking havoc.

Havoc, however, that is underscored by a strong sense of shared experience, love and affection. Perhaps Kaszas' greatest achievement is in balancing the madcap plot with the playwright's more abiding themes.

In this, she gets a hearty assist from a superb cast, firmly anchored by Gilsenan in what is perhaps the most memorable performance of a memorable career. Other stand-outs in this gaggle of comedic champs include Fox, Thomas and Bowes, the latter in a thoroughly thankless role that makes his performance all the more commendable.

All of which is not to say that The Norbals is a perfect play, because it is not. Technically, Julia Tribe's sprawling set works against the production for an entire first act that threatens to get lost in exposition. Overall, it would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as a live sitcom. It even has a theme song, thanks to Moxie Fruvous.

But in the end, it's got such a huge heart that one is prepared to overlook all its flaws and embrace it anyway.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely the way most of us feel about our families.

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