‘The Affections of May,’ A Comedy with a Heart of Gold Celebrates New Beginnings

Norm Foster may not be a household name in the Lower 48, but up north he’s often referred to as “the Canadian Neil Simon.” Canada’s most-produced contemporary playwright (his plays currently number over 55), is treasured for his humor, accessibility, and insight into the trials faced by ordinary people in today’s world.

I’m so grateful to executive producer Ellen Wacher of Pigs Do Fly Productions (which specializes in featuring actors and content geared toward audiences over 50) for introducing us to this wonderful playwright. I’d raved about her earlier, highly rated Foster play, “The Ladies Foursome.” But find myself even more impressed by her latest Foster presentation: the exquisite, multi-layered dramatic comedy, with heart, THE AFFECTIONS OF MAY, now playing at Empire Stage through March 31. 

Wacher assembled the perfect professional ensemble and production crew to bring Foster’s intimate portrayal of what was recast, stateside, as the small, rural New England town of Grogan’s Cove to life. Starting with her appointment of award-winning, 30-year local veteran and superstar Mariah Reed to serve as director. Of course, all the action flowed seamlessly and I also appreciate Reed’s casting selections. Like choosing Pigs Do Fly’s artistic director Deborah Kondelik for the lead role of May (theater geeks will flock to the show just to see this talented pro!). 

We first meet May as she enters the lovely sitting room and cloth-draped dining table area of her quaint, yet warmly inviting, small Bed-and-Breakfast hotel: a new business venture she’d launched with her husband barely a year ago. There’s an old-fashioned boom box playing cheerful 1990’s pop music in the background. May raises the volume and practically dances as she readies a table for breakfast. (Kudos to scenic designer Ardean Landhuis for the realistic set, along with lighting designer Preston Bircher and sound designer David Hart – all seasoned and award-winning local pros.) Because of Empire Stage’s intimate seating and excellent sight-lines, we in the audience almost feels like we’re seated at the next table.  And quickly become emotionally involved. 

Deborah Kondelik & Ben Prayz

As soon as May’s husband Brian (Brian James McCormack) enters rather furtively – in business attire and toting two suitcases – we realize something’s off, but naive May remains oblivious. He’s not a nice guy, immediately lowering the volume of the music in disgust, tucking into his breakfast and ignoring May’s wish to discuss their finances for the off season … even asking her to “pass the salt” that’s sitting right in front of him.

Brian criticizes May’s casual outfit (perfectly suitable for the morning’s task of chopping wood) but when she questions him, he replies he’d simply forgotten about their planned chore. Only after he’d eaten his fill (after all, he can’t drive four hours to the city on empty stomach!) does he say: “I tried May. This kind of life is just not for me.” 

And finally it dawns on May that her husband of 29 years is actually leaving her. Along with the B&B business that was to be their joint, healthy-living new chapter. The one she felt would bring them closer together … and away from temptation of the “other woman” in his life. 

Didn’t he promise to give it a chance for at least a few years? But now he’s walked out on everything – with no prior warning. Though in Brian’s eyes, she should have noticed how out-of-place and unhappy he was living in the boonies all along. His behavior is extremely, chauvinistically inconsiderate, but he also basically realizes he’s a “city mouse” to her “country mouse.” He hates the small talk and everyone saying “hi” and knowing your business in a small town. In fact, he revels in city anonymity, whereas warmer, people-person, May, relishes the community spirit and friendliness of small town life. 

But she also believes in the sanctity of marriage and won’t give up on their 29-year history without a fight. She’s both angry and utterly crushed at being deserted in this way and, as word quickly spreads in the gossipy town of her being dumped, won’t admit it to anyone, not even herself. Insisting, at least at first, on a fantasy scenario that her husband had simply taken a business trip and will return. 

Much of the pathos, and the comedy, ensues from May’s reactions to the town’s two bachelors who, each in their own very different way, become suitors to the only nice and suddenly available female in town. Both have negligible experience with women and through their relationship (or even attempts at a relationship) with May, finally grow up, deal with the issues from their past, and embrace a newfound freedom to change the trajectory of their lives. As does May who, despite some really crazy interactions, gains confidence in her desirability as a friend and sexual human being, helped along by their interest and support. 

We join all three of them on their journey, root for their success (romantically and in other ways) and can’t help but see aspects of our own lives through their interactions, weaknesses and strengths. But perhaps best of all, we get to laugh out loud, often, at all the insane situations these ordinary folk get themselves into, while basking in the playwright’s sharp, witty dialog. I, for one, will never look at a Scrabble board the same way again! You need to attend this show just to experience the hilarious double-entendre-laden word choice/seductions in a flirtatious game of Scrabble.

May’s first suitor is banker Hank (William Mahone) who arrives with insider knowledge – both of May’s costume for the town’s upcoming Halloween party (and so persists in becoming her escort) and the news that before he left, her husband had emptied out half of their shared bank account, money she’d counted on to survive the winter doldrums. May doesn’t want to offend her banker, who’d offered to tide her over with a loan, but is not the least bit romantically interested in this overly pushy and awkward man who’d never been in a relationship and whose primary hobby is collecting mugs. 

But he apparently wears her down. The next scene shows them returning to her place, after the party. For some reason, Hank had chosen a ridiculous costume to accompany her Little Bo-Peep getup and she literally has to fight him off when he sexually accosts her after having had far too much to drink. But he’s a harmless buffoon, and when we learn about how he was really treated in high school (versus his self-aggrandizing made-up version) can garner some sympathy for the poor fellow. 

Hank brings her flowers the next day, and the next … and eventually appears sincerely sorry for his inappropriate behavior. She forgives him in the end, he provides the necessary loan with no strings attached and, thanks to May’s encouragement through words and by example, is finally able to leave his mother’s house and chart his own course in life. Better late than never. Director Mariah Reed wisely ends her program note with Hank’s observation that could apply (for good and for ill) to all the characters: “It’s funny, isn’t it, how our direction in life is often charted by someone else?”

Flowers can’t always make up for boorish behavior. May (Deborah Kondelik) tells off unwelcome suitor Hank (William Mahone) as she points him toward the door.

After a fire burns down his trailer, Hank’s long-ago classmate – true basketball hero, but fallen on hard times, handyman Quinn (Ben Prayz) – might be the only other age-appropriate single man in town. When he presents himself at May’s doorstep (also extremely awkwardly while saying all the wrong things), he’s desperate for a warm place to sleep that’s better than the neighbor’s drafty barn that comes complete with a cow he’d refrained from molesting. Yeah, he said that. Another one who really doesn’t know how to speak to a woman. Though he can be honest to a fault. “Don’t ask me about love,” he says. “There’s an awful lot I do not understand.”

Quinn does know how to fix things (just maybe not himself) and barter room and the occasional home-cooked meal for whatever list of repairs May comes up with – and there are plenty. He also has a personal association with her new home (but I’ll leave that for you to discover). And despite dressing like a hobo, actually holds deep roots in the town where, before their untimely death after a scandal when he was 17, his parents were pillars of the community; his father even served many years as police chief. 

There is a dark side to small town nosiness. Ostracism often results from not agreeing with another person’s moral choices. What’s worse is how the sins of the father can be inflicted on the son – in this case Quinn who, until meeting May, internalized the town’s censure and felt he had no right to happiness. May finds herself suddenly ignored by the town’s married women who were so friendly when she had a husband but now feel threatened by her unattached state.

But even while May struggles with her own issues of self-worth at being dumped, she’s able to serve as a breath of fresh air and support for others. Which in the long (or actually short) run – the play’s time frame is only about a month – illustrates that while it might take a village, you don’t need a lifetime to get that second chance. 

Deborah Kondelik & Brian James McCormack

Two acts and five scenes (with scene changes accompanied by appropriate catchy lyrics to reflect the action) are efficiently organized by fleet-footed prop/scene change assistant Jen Hollander. The circa two-hour (with 10 minute intermission) play absorbs you so completely that time flies and you almost regret having to say good-bye to your new Grogan’s Cove friends. Though their optimism for the future is contagious! You’ll leave the theater uplifted, feeling some things can be made right in the world (a rare occurrence these days). You might even be inspired to make positive changes in your own life… No matter your age! 

Don’t miss Canada’s most popular new play (when introduced in the 1990s) and a timeless favorite through the decades. Pigs Do Fly Productions presents THE AFFECTIONS OF MAY by Norm Foster through March 31 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale 33304. For tickets go to www.pigsdoflyproductions.com or call 954-678-1496.

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