How much can you learn about someone in the span of a conversation? With two people of vastly different personalities and circumstances, and only a distant familiarity between them, what can they hope to discover? Much, as it turns out, with the help of a few tumblers of whiskey to share.
That is the coil that unwinds itself, with all its twists and turns, during the Elmira Theatre Company’s latest production of a Norman Foster caper, On a First Name Basis. Opening February 2, it’s a show that’s piqued with the wit and deep characterization Foster is known for.
On the surface, the story’s a rather simple one. David Kilbride is a generally odd and self-involved writer of spy novels. His housekeeper of 28 years, the sardonic and sharp-tongued Lucy Hopperstaad, is preparing to retire for the night, when he detains her at the door with a request.
He realizes, with some amazement, that after almost three decades spent together, he hardly knows a thing about her. In fact, he doesn’t even know the good Ms. Hopperstaad’s first name, much to her annoyance. So, to fix the situation, he asks his hapless employee to tell him the story of her life; and in the process hopes to share a secret of his own.
“They stay in one evening and they have a drink together and they find out about each other’s lives, which is really interesting because in fact she already knows pretty much everything about his life and he knows nothing about hers,” explains director Rita Huschka.
“And the discoveries that they make are by turns funny, sad, poignant, moving, delightfully witty – it’s just an all-round lovely play.”
The entirety of the play takes place on a single set, over the course of a single conversation between these two characters, David Kilbride and Lucy Hopperstaad, played by ETC veterans Gord Cameron and Deb Deckert respectively. At its core, the show is a comedy – though a comedy with heart – and the action moves at a surprisingly brisk pace as the two bicker and banter in a flurry of exchanges.
“It’s almost like a marriage,” said Deb Deckert, who takes on the role of the worldly Lucy Hopperstaad. “They’ve been together for 28 years and she just puts up with his idiosyncrasies because she’s been there for that long.”
Lucy is definitely the down-to-earth character, often playing the foil to David’s flighty behaviour. “I’m nothing if not forthright, sir,” is one of Lucy’s quips, and it’s an apt one.
“She has been with him for 28 years, and she’s been through all of his marriages and all of his novels and the movie versions and everything,” says Huschka. “She is clever herself. She’s not highly educated the way he is – she is moderately educated – but she’s very clever and quick. And she has a great sense of humour and she knows how to deal with him.”
Opposite Deckert is her co-star Gord Cameron, who plays the absent-minded writer.
“Perhaps [he’s] a little socially inept,” said Deckert. “He doesn’t always pick up the social cues that other people would. And my character’s, I don’t know, would you say sarcastically witty, or wittily sarcastic?”
It’s a two-person show, and therein lies both the challenge and the distinct reward of the production. For two hours, Deckert and Cameron have to be able to captivate their audiences in travails of their two personas, and keep the entire show moving.
“It has a lot of inherent challenges, obviously, but on the other side too it gives the audience a lot of time to focus in just on a very specific relationship and how that might develop over two full acts,” said Cameron.
“Yeah, with just the two of us the challenge is how do you keep your audience engaged for that length of time when there’s only two of you,” added Deckert. “So the pressure is on to be on top of your game. We have to know our lines really, really well, but, luckily for Gord and I, this is not our first time at the rodeo.”
The actors have collaborated on numerous other plays together, but with the action focused squarely on them, the stakes are raised dramatically. That said, the difficulty of performing a two-person show is what drew them to the audition in the first place.
“After you’ve done number of plays, you look for things that will challenge you. And not just the challenge of the volume of lines, which is certainly there, but the challenge of keeping a play afloat with just two people,” said Cameron.
Buoying the play along is the rich dialogue, the compelling story, deep themes that they say will resonate with their fans.
“I think that it’s very, very appealing,” said Huschka. “Particularly to our audiences who are mostly over 40, because part of the discussion during the play is about what we leave behind. And I think that becomes more and more important and interesting to all of us as we get older. What are we going to leave behind when we’re gone?”
It’s also apropos of the season, noted Deckert: “With Valentine’s coming up, I mean it is a love story. Maybe not hearts and flowers but it is essentially a love story with all the ups and downs. And yes we get cross with each other and we forgive each other, but it is essentially yes.”
The Elmira Theatre Company production of On a First Name Basis runs February 2-17 at the group’s 76 Howard Ave. venue. Tickets are available at the Centre in the Square box office in Kitchener by calling 519-578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977, online at www.centre-square.com or www.elmiratheatre.com.
The company will also be taking the play on the road as its entry to this year’s Western Ontario Drama League Festival in Sarnia.