Entertainment

Okanagan: Vets plan 'jail break' from French retirment home

Brian Haigh (left), John Lomas and Jeff Samin star in Heroes, a play about three veterans escaping a state-run retirement facility in France. - Jennifer Smith
Brian Haigh (left), John Lomas and Jeff Samin star in Heroes, a play about three veterans escaping a state-run retirement facility in France.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

On first blush, it would appear retirement is the ideal time to get involved in local theatre if you love staging plays.

When an actor takes on a complex, dramatic role with humorous undertones, as this year’s Theatre Kelowna Society Zone Festival offering, Heroes, serves up, he or she has the time to really delve into the material without the exhausting distraction of the nine-to-five grind.

While the bonus time to learn the lines appears ideal, it’s nonetheless no bed of roses.

“Learning lines is the most unpleasant part of theatre. It’s a chore. But you can’t do anything until you have them. You can’t try to discover the character until you are reacting and thinking as your character would, and as I get older, it’s a little more of a struggle,” said Brian Haigh, director and actor.

Listening to Haigh, a retired teacher in his 70s, talk about the camaraderie in the script somewhat mirrors his description of how the three actors are tackling this challenge. Heroes is an hour-and-a-half long and would leave thespians half their age exhausted. And yet, they doggedly pursue the work, trying to flesh out its poignant message without making it look as tough as it feels.

Jeff Samin, the man with the most to memorizes, nails his description of the experience.

“I think everything gets a little bit more difficult when you get older. Things you didn’t even think about when you were young take longer. It’s harder to open a jar…When you bend over to pick something up, your back creaks,” he said. “It’s definitely harder to focus.”

Of course, knowing what it’s like to age gives them the compassion and empathy to step through that door into a world where nuns have strict rules for grown men and an endless stream of maddening birthday celebrations make retirement home existence insufferable for characters Gustave, Philippe and Henri.

Written as a statement on how the French government treats its veterans, Heroes is about the friendship between three ex-soldiers living out their years in a state-run facility for veterans where their “dictatorial captors, and untrustworthy fellow prisoners, spur plans for a jailbreak.”

Obviously a satirical take on the predicament these heroes face, playwright Tom Stoppard crafts a necessary friendship between his characters which sees the new guy on the block, an agoraphobic whose fear of large crowds is spiralling with age, convince his closest pals to plot an escape to the countryside.

“Tom Stoppard is one of my favourites for his great turn of phrase,” said Haigh. “…These fellows are basically in a holding tank waiting to die and their only source of entertainment is each other.

“They bicker and fight and support each other.”

Haigh holds a master’s degree in theatre—specifically, set design—and admits he selected this play because he loves the playwright, and quite obviously couldn’t tackle this type of material with teenagers, and for practical purposes. As a teacher, he had access to space, time, large casts and crew. Volunteer theatre demands lean and portable sets at festival time, emphasizing the heart of the work—the characters—without needless frills.

The focus is a rare opportunity, in Samin’s eyes.

“As you get older, the parts seem to shrink. You’re always an old person they put in the play who sits in the corner and you get one or two lines,” he said. “…This is meaty.”

Heroes runs April 17-27 at 7:30 p.m. and matinées at 2 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre behind Kelowna Community Theatre. Tickets are $20 online or call 250-762-5050.

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