What I Did Last Summer

Metro Theatre’s swan song for their 2013-2014 season is A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, directed by Rita M. Price. This comedy is set in a Lake Erie, Ontario summer cottage in 1945, the final summer of World War II. 

What I Did Last Summer
[Patrica Braun, Robyn Bradley]

The action revolves around Charlie Higgins (Joe Hinks), a 14-year old boy struggling with adolescence and his future. He’s spending the summer with his mother Grace (Patricia Braun) and elder sister Elsie (Kaitlin Stoneman) at a summer cottage on the lake prior to heading off to boarding school in the fall. Each family member suffers from the absence of the father on war service in the Pacific: Charlie is rebellious and rude; Elsie is becoming fat and whiny; Grace is carrying on a discreet affair.

What I Did Last Summer
[Robyn Bradley, Joe Hinks]

The play has obvious autobiographical elements, given the location, the time period, the age of the main character, and family background. A. R. Gurney went on to have successful careers, first as an academic, and later as a prolific playwright (The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour, Sweet Sue amongst others) of nostalgic works focused on the American WASP experience and values.  

In order to both escape from his mother and to compete with his 16-year old friend Ted Moffatt (Lucas Simon) for the affections of next-door neighbour Bonnie (Julia Siedlanowska), Charlie takes on a job as handyman with Anna Trumball (Robyn Bradley), known locally as the “pig woman”, a bohemian freethinking artist shunned by the upper class inhabitants of the town.

The conflict for Charlie arises from the tension between the path to personal fulfillment and freedom advocated by Anna, and the conventional WASP route of decorum and conformity represented by Grace. The absence of his father allows this internal conflict to play out without any offsetting mature advice or perspective.

What I Did Last Summer
[Joe Hinks, Lucas Simon] 

This is a modest play with a coming-of-age theme, its uniqueness derived from the specific time and place of the events depicted. The Metro Theatre puts out its usual good effort in bringing this play to life. Any shortcomings in this work (and there are several) have to be laid at the feet of the playwright and not of this production.

The first act is clearly the best of the two. There is considerable wit and humour in the dialogue (including a few jokes about Canadians versus Americans) and all of the characters are in action. The second act is a lot less dynamic by comparison. 

Four of the six characters are teenagers played by adults. This works very well for all of the characters except Ted. Lucas Simon is a fine actor but is obviously much older than 16. However, Julia Siedlanowska and Kaitlin Stoneman are very credible as teenagers.

Special mention must be made of the excellent work of Joe Hinks, a co-producer (together with Nadine Loewen), who jumped in to replace the original cast member who had to drop out at the last moment. As Charlie Higgins’ role is central to the play, the entire production would have fallen flat if Mr. Hinks had been less capable as a replacement.

What I Did Last Summer
Kudos also go out to Heather Stewart’s set design. She’s assisted by Tracy-Lynn Chernaske as set decor/scenic painter and Dwayne Campbell as head carpenter. The set perfectly depicts a summer cottage called “Rose Hill” with a trellis, plants, picket fence, stone wall, and patio furniture.

Effective use is made of a cushioned patio bench center stage, doing double duty as an automobile.

As well, the stage design serves to smoothly direct the movement of the characters, a credit to both Larry Smith’s stage management and to Rita Price’s direction. A combination of 1940’s swinging jazz and nostalgic ballads help considerably to bring out the end of the war era, as do the costumes designed by Shizuka Sato.

What I Did Last Summer
[Robyn Bradley, Joe Hinks, Patricia Braun, Kaitlin Stoneman]
It’s clear that everyone involved with the Metro Theatre from General Manager and Technical Director Les Erskine on down has a passion for theatre. The cast and production crew always put a lot of effort into what they do. The venue is also one of the nicest in Vancouver, is easily accessible, with free onsite parking. It’s only unfortunate that there doesn’t appear to be a larger audience for retro theatre in Vancouver.
What I Did Last Summer continues at the Metro Theatre (Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm) until June 14, with two Sunday matinee performances at 2:30 pm on June 1 and 8. 

Photos by Tracy-Lynn Chernaske.

About Our Contributor Michael Pigeon

Michael Pigeon

Michael is a long-time Vancouver resident who's recently returned home after living abroad for over a decade. Michael enjoys reconnecting with Canadian culture through the Greater Vancouver theatre scene and being retired in a city that offers so many opportunities to live a healthy, engaged lifestyle.

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