Ego crisis hits ATP

The highlight of this year’s Alberta Theatre Projects playRites will be Eugene Stickland’s Midlife. It may be high praise for a play I haven’t seen, but as I keep telling everybody: it’s Eugene Stickland. ATP’s playwright-in-residence brought us the Governor General Award-nominated Some Assembly Required and A Guide to Mourning. His latest effort, Midlife, won’t disappoint.

Set in Calgary, the play uses the oil industry as a backdrop to explore the Internet, intimacy, betrayal and loyalty. As the title suggests, the play centres around a married 40-something oil exec, Jack. While his wife Darlene-whom the audience never sees or hears-tries to rekindle their passion, Jack feels drawn to the new office girl, Amber. However, Amber’s beauty does not go unnoticed by Jack’s colleague, Johnny Delvecchio.

As Jack tries to negotiate work, his wife, Amber and Delvecchio-a jilted petroleum landman with a penchant for internet chatrooms- a dynamic power struggle ensues, resolved with play’s conclusion.

Sitting with Stickland over a coffee and smoke in the Centre for Performing Arts, it becomes abundantly clear how much effort, time and skill was put into creating this story. What’s truly amazing is that he’s manage to write play about this kind of a crisis, without alienating younger members of his audience.

“Everyone is at a crossroads in this play,” explains Stickland. “You can look at this as Jack’s play and you can look at this as a typical midlife crisis. But one of the things I was thinking of when I started this is that there is no typical midlife crisis-there’s no such thing as a typical suicide or a typical divorce-they’re all individual for their own reasons. I’ve tried to attend to the situation of the 20-year-old, the 30-year-old and the 40-year-old, as being equally important rites of passage in their lives.”

Still, the central idea revolves around an older man coupled with a younger women. What is it about sleeping with a younger woman that makes older men feel so… so alive?

“It’s an ego thing,” Stickland laughs. “Don’t look for too obscure a motive in any of our actions.”

Very base, but it wasn’t the idea of a midlife crisis that propelled Stickland to write this. Like other plays he wrote for ATP, Midlife started out as a conversation with ATP Artistic Director Bob White.

“We were just having a discussion over a drink one night about the Internet and chatrooms-the cheap intimacy of things like that,” he says. “Anyone with a mouse can very quickly begin saying all kinds of intimate things to a total stranger [as opposed] to the reality of maintaining a real relationship.”

This is Delvecchio’s cross to bear in the play. Delvecchio… wait a minute, haven’t I heard that name somewhere before?

“Every character name in here is the name of somebody who played for the Detroit Red Wings at one time or another,” he confesses after some careful prodding. “In all my plays I’ve got a little in joke with myself and I thought, ‘well, where do characters names come from anyway?’ Once I had Delvecchio, I thought, ‘that’s so Detroit Red Wings.’ Then I went on the Internet and got a list of all their team rosters and picked the names.”

In another unusual twist, while the play is set in Calgary, Stickland actually wrote the first draft during a residency at the National Theatre School in Montréal. The distance from cowtown proved useful for Stickland.

“You know how they say when you travel, you learn more about your home? I think it helped me [to be] in Montreal. It gave me a little perspective on this place.”

From there, Midlife continued evolve. It was presented as a Platform Play in last year’s festival. The process of revision doesn’t stop for Stickland until he is satisfied. It’s only after he gauges audience reaction at the preview nights, that he’s able to make the final changes and leave his play finished.

“There’s not one scene, one line that I’ve not heard work. But there’s this other kind of chemical equation with a play, where the whole is greater than the sum total of the parts. That’s sort of the ephemeral magic of theatre,” he says. “Sometimes a script really doesn’t look like much when you’re reading it, but somehow it creates this magical experience in the theatre-there’s no way of telling that until you get an audience.”