Review: Lemoine's The Oculist's Holiday a tender, funny look at what it means to be a stranger

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It doesn’t take long for the audience at the Varscona Theatre to learn they’re in for a ride with The Oculist’s Holiday.

That’s because from the moment its central character, Mrs. Marian Ogilvy (Beth Graham) appears solo at centre stage to speak to graduates of the Southern Ontario Business College, it’s clear this is no ordinary commencement address circa 1934. There will be no exhortation to the young ladies in the auditorium to pursue new heights of typing prowess.

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Indeed, Marian — a self-assured career woman in a sensible suit and heels — has another agenda entirely. She feels a “profound need” to warn the assembled. Upon learning the warning involved a man and a hotel room, I, for one, had my steno pad at the ready.

Like many Lemoine plays, The Oculist’s Holiday has an exotic setting, in this case, Lausanne Switzerland. That’s where Marian, a book editor in Toronto, has decided to take a holiday, alone. Arriving without a hotel reservation, she finds herself in a charming guest house run by a “curious sort of noblewoman of mixed pedigree.”

The Oculist's Holiday
Teatro Live! presents The Oculist’s Holiday, by Stewart Lemoine. The show runs at the Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave., through June 16, 2024. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography and Video /Supplied

Princess Volodevsky (Cathy Derkach) is the perfect hostess, delivering charm and tumblers of Lillet in equal measure. At first, it looks like Marian is the princess’s only guest, but we soon discover that Ted Fletcher (Oscar Derkx) is also in the building. A handsome American eye doctor, he has taken a break to think about whether he should assume his father’s optometry practice in Ohio. The two find themselves in a romantic encounter that is interrupted by the arrival of a married couple at the guest house. Laurette Hastings (Rachel Bowron) and Charlie Hastings (Mathew Hulshof) are stunningly attired (thanks to costume designer Leona Brausen) and apparently wealthy. But shiny surfaces notwithstanding, they soon reveal themselves to be, at best, in a strained relationship.

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When Laurette stomps off in a huff, her husband seems more than happy to let her roam the streets of a strange city after dark. Ted, however, is a gentleman. Concerned for her welfare, he follows Laurette, only to become entangled in a dark secret. When neither return to the guest house, Charlie and Marian go in search of answers.

The Oculist's Holiday
Teatro Live! presents The Oculist’s Holiday, by Stewart Lemoine. The show runs at the Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave., through June 16, 2024. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography and Video /Supplied

In classic Lemoine fashion, The Oculist’s Holiday (first seen in Edmonton in 2009) is chock full of cocktails and classical music. But it’s neither a screwball comedy, nor a farce involving a goodly number of slamming doors. Classified by director Belinda Cornish as one of Lemoine’s “beautiful plays,” it is both tender and funny (with plenty of puns about vision). It’s also a little sad. Like others in the beautiful genre (including Witness to a Conga, and arguably even The Exquisite Hour) the narrative is at times, unsettling.

It goes without saying (although Marian insists things that go without saying should actually be said) that, as ever, the Teatro Live! ensemble delivers strong performances. Still, a special shout-out to Derkach, whose very pores ooze Princess Volodevsky (“Dorrie to my friends”). She floats about the stage like a festooned cruise liner, managing to take charge, or leave the room discreetly, as befits a doyenne of the hospitality sector. Graham is also persuasive as a woman who finds herself wondering whether it’s possible to ever return once you have run in the opposite direction.

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“What do you see when you are on an oculist’s holiday?” is a question that is posed by the story, which also ponders what it means to be a stranger. What do we really need to know about each other, and when are we able to recognize and to understand what’s important? The Oculist’s Holiday is a love story of sorts, but it’s also instructive. You might just want to take notes.

REVIEW

Teatro Live! presents The Oculist’s Holiday, by Stewart Lemoine
Director: Belinda Cornish
Featuring: Beth Graham, Rachel Bowron, Cathy Derkach, Oscar Derkx and Mathew Hulshof
Where: Varscona Theatre 10329 83 Ave.
When: Through June 16
Tickets: starting at $25 at teatrolive.com or by calling 780-433-3399

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