“Grief is a species of idleness.”– Samuel Johnson, 1773
Sounds crass, right? Think about the modern-day funeral in all its intricacies: you get an afternoon off, go to the funeral (sans black these days), maybe go to a post-funeral house or pub reception and then wake up the next day and get on with life. That’s what many North Americans do to grieve.
Perhaps that’s why audiences and critics find Eugene Stickland’s A Guide to Mourning both deliciously comic and strangely therapeutic. Opening Alberta Theatre Projects’ season, Stickland’s work revolves around a funeral, but speaks more to life and the often convoluted relationships within families.
In A Guide to Mourning, the wayward Pringle children return one-by-one to their childhood home after their father’s death. This family reunion ignites conflicts which eventually lead to a form of acceptance–or at least tolerance–of each other and the loss of their father.
Time adopts a dream-like quality in this production, which lends authenticity to the play and some of its more bizarre characters. Another element that builds this ethereal quality is the use of tissues by the main characters in the play. Upon arriving home, each child is given a box of tissue to use while mourning their father, which continually pile up on the stage as the play crescendos to its conclusion.
"The only real difference as far as the play goes is that it’s all one long, long day," says Stickland, who is ATP’s writer-in-residence. "It’s like the way memory works; a bit like looking through snapshots sometimes. I wrote a lot of it from classic images of the death and indeed, that’s where the first image of the mother wearing tissues comes from."
Stickland began work on the play after his own father passed away. After successfully premiering it at Calgary’s play Rites ’98, Stickland consolidated various versions of A Guide to Mourning into a published form: Two Plays by Eugene Stickland.
"I had all these strong feelings, and I guess I was lucky that I could put them into this play, and then work with this play for a couple of years, and then dedicate this production to his memory and the printed version of this play to his memory," said Stickland. "I felt I came through quite well with my own grieving process, but most people don’t have something like that and I think you need to."
Despite the subject matter and what he calls a "sentimental ending," Stickland originally believed his play to be "extensively comic." Perhaps this is why he was so surprised at audience reaction on opening night in ’98.
"At the end of the play, the music stopped and there was this darkness and you could hear people crying throughout the theatre… and that just grew and grew… because they’ve probably gone through something like that, but have never dealt with it. And they’re not bad people or anything, but we can be a pretty uncaring culture, I think… [with an attitude] that we should get on with our lives."
Because of one scene where Lewis and Rex Pringle gather in their father’s closet to contemplate his Daks dress shoes and life, a man approached Stickland at the after-party that same night. He was convinced Stickland knew his family.
"His grandfather had been a florist, and [as a child] his brother liked to go and sit in the grandfather’s closet because all of his clothes smelled so beautiful, like flowers. And [the grandfather] only wore Daks shoes and when he died, he and his brother, these sort of grown men, went and sat in his closet on one night and talked about his life. So when he saw this scene in my play, he thought for sure I must have known his brother."
A Guide to Mourning captured four Betty Mitchell awards that year, and was performed everywhere from Toronto to New York. The current production boasts an experienced and varied cast, as well as a director whose interpretation has impressed its own author. A Guide to Mourning will amaze audiences while bestowing them some beautiful insight into their own lives.
"The past really does catch up with you and for a lot of people, it really catches up to them through this–in this play. And I think that’s a great thing and I’m happy to have done that. I thought the title was meant ironically, but for some people it’s not; it is a guide."
Eugene Stickland’s A Guide to Mourning runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 14 in the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts.