As a COVID-haunted world emerges haltingly from hiding, mixed feelings loom: excitement over resumption of quasi-normal life, anxiety over the risks that come with it. Rich as I am in both underlying medical conditions and abject cowardice, I wondered: Can I make myself attend a live performance under these conditions, and will I enjoy it? I decided to find out.
It’s been 16 months since my last review, when I caught a Fascinating Ladies show just before the pandemic shut down pretty much all things theatrical. I did no reviewing during the ensuing year-and-a-bit, not even on the rare occasions when a local play materialized. With a long history of respiratory infections and a strong aversion to death, you literally couldn’t pay me to set foot inside a theatre.
Come the summer of 2021, though, things are different. I’ve been partially vaccinated, the theatres are taking COVID precautions, and Canada’s corner of the pandemic seems to be waning. And so it was that, masked and sanitized and only slightly apprehensive, I made my way to sunny Victoria-by-the-Sea and the first play I’ve attended in well over a year: Off the Grid at the Victoria Playhouse, directed by Mark Fraser.
It’s a nice way to ease back into live theatre: even during its summer rush, Victoria’s not so claustrophobically teeming a mass of humanity as peak Charlottetown; and the charming Victoria Playhouse often serves up light, frothy theatrical comfort food, which pretty much describes Canadian playwright John Spurway’s 2019 comedy Off the Grid.
Architect Marty (played by Melissa Kramer) and her husband Leonard (Dennis Trainor) are spending a week “off the grid” in a bare-bones, middle-of-nowhere cabin devoid of comforts like internet, TV or flush toilets, all so Marty can write an article about self-sufficient houses while she and Leonard celebrate their anniversary in romantic solitude. Missing civilization, Leonard has doubts about this wilderness getaway, especially after shady shack dweller Lowell (Lee J. Campbell) starts making neighbourly yet unsettling visits, and dark secrets gradually emerge.
Of course ‘dark’ is a relative concept, and what unfolds is a bit more Scooby Doo than Rear Window on the sinister scale, in keeping with the show’s light comedy tone (Lowell’s most suspicious act is accompanied here by the Pink Panther musical theme, for gosh sakes). Whether it’s due to that tone or Campbell’s low-key performance, Lowell’s never really all that menacing; and as Spurway’s script telegraphs the hermit’s big secret pretty transparently, there’s not much mystery here.
But Off the Grid isn’t really trying to be a mystery or a thriller, even if it contains some of the elements of same; it’s a light comedy mixed with relationship drama, and it largely succeeds on those terms. All three characters are likeable, the script is often amusing, and Fraser’s able, appealing cast has solid chemistry and comic timing. Your scaredy-cat critic was glad he came.