By Andrea Warner
Vancouver-born playwright Joan MacLeod, who has nine plays and a Governor General’s Award to her credit, has lived, taught, and toiled from Toronto to Victoria. It’s no surprise, then, that Toronto, Mississippi, proves to be a tender and tasty slice of Canadiana.
Thankfully, there’s no maple syrup or hockey sticks to be found here — just a story about Jhana (Meg Roe), a mentally challenged 18-year-old attempting to navigate adolescence and impending adulthood. Jhana lives at home with her tightly-wound mother, Maddie (Colleen Wheeler), and their poet boarder, Bill (Alessandro Juliani). When King (William MacDonald) — Jhana’s father, a professional Elvis impersonator rolls back into town, everyone’s world turns upside down.
Thanks to MacLeod’s clever, humane writing, and Roe’s deft comic touch, the audience is fully immersed in Jhana’s day-to-day challenges and triumphs, from basic lessons in her life-skills classes to her first crush on a boy. Jhana’s interactions with Maddie are as real as any teenager attempting to exert her independence, and her reliance on Bill is evident: The warm exchanges between the two could melt even the iciest heart. It’s a perfect set-up whose future is threatened when King returns.
Juliani and MacDonald do cocky grandstanding incredibly well, their characters circling each other warily, equal parts awkward and amusing. Bill may be written as non-threatening (after all, he’s a grad student with one book of poetry to his credit, who considers himself a voice for women and minorities), but Juliani brings a subtle masculinity to the role that more than challenges King’s swaggering, virile persona. His chemistry with Wheeler is palpable, and the de facto family they’ve created for Jhana is nicely reflective of an era that ushered in new, non-traditional familial structures (Who’s the Boss immediately springs to mind).
Wheeler gives Maddie a tough protective exterior, which is a realistic defense mechanism for a woman who’s single-mommed it for 10 years, and defended Jhana from bullies and judgmental strangers for nearly two decades. When she says “I always hate the sound of my voice when I talk to you” during one of her fights with King, Wheeler nails the tone of a woman slipping back into bad patterns. But the talented actress brings so much intelligence to the character, it’s hard to believe Maddie would ever have fallen for a guy like King, let alone considered letting him back into her bed.
The only real misstep in the otherwise sparkling gem of a script comes about five minutes shy of the final bow, when the audience endures not just one ending, but three — which smacks of a writer who was just finding her voice (this is MacLeod’s second play). It’s a small complaint, but one that stands out, since everything else is so strong. That said, it’s such a rare treat to witness great writing fueling fantastic performances that Toronto, Mississippi ends up feeling like a warm hug on a cold night.