One could call Norm Foster the Canadian Neil Simon. Like Simon, he writes light-hearted comedies that, with the right cast and a savvy director, can pack an emotional punch as well as plenty of laughs. With “Ethan Claymore,” Little Fish Theatre hits on eight cylinders with a slick production shoehorned into an intimate space.
It is coming onto Christmas in a small farming community and Ethan Claymore (Mitchell McCollum), an egg-farmer in his late twenties, has been grieving for five years over the death of his beloved wife. His loyal neighbor, Douglas McClaren (Rodney Rincon), declares that his grief must come to an end, that he must get out into the world, talk with friends, buy new clothes and more to the point, meet the attractive new school teacher, Teresa Pike (Tara Donovan), who has just moved into town. In his emotional lethargy, Ethan lets himself be manipulated and unenthusiastically agrees to Douglas’s scheme, which includes a visit from the new teacher that very day. The plan develops a hiccup when Ethan learns that his older brother Martin (Bill Wolski), has just died of a massive heart attack. Since his name is in the program, Martin must make an appearance, either in a flashback or as a ghost. Both it turns out. What starts out as a pleasant sit-com takes a left turn onto postmortem-fantasy street.
Mr. McCollum, in a performance as easy and appealing as unlabored breath, is simply superb in the title role, always engaged and filled with low-key charisma. As Ethan’s brother Martin, Mr. Wolski is every inch the hostile car salesman, not a little confused by his new role as a spirit sent on a mission by forces unknown in a situation unclear. He calls his brother “Nancy,” a derisive moniker from their youth. In flash backs, in which the actors take on the personas of their childhood selves, we learn of conflict generated by an older, athletic brother’s disdain for his younger brother’s gentler, artistic nature. An unfortunate accident that Martin blames on his brother and an act of callous retribution causes a bitter estrangement between the siblings.
As Ethan’s, kindly, avuncular neighbor Douglas, Mr. Rincon carries the comedy with a light touch and impeccable timing aided by the production’s polished use of a little stage magic. Ms. Donovan is ideal as Teresa Pike, a character of ever-revealing complexity as the play heads resolutely to the anticipated dénouement. It’s a comedy after all, faithful to the form’s classic circularity.
The production, under the razor-sharp direction of Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, looks and sounds terrific. Aaron Francis has designed an attractively detailed unit set that represents a modern country farmhouse, complete with a glowing wood stove. Lighting designer Christopher Singleton makes that stove glow with a fire that changes in intensity at key moments, and his plot includes effective, eerie transitions in and out of fantasy and memory. Costumes by Diana Mann are well chosen and reinforce character. And the sound design by the director, including the excellent selections of well-chosen folk songs, enhances the entire show.
If you are looking for something different for the holidays, this is it. “Ethan Clayton” runs through December 19 at Little Fish Theatre, 777 S. Centre Street, San Pedro.