Play Review: Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon”

September 22, 2016 | By

AuntDanLemon_featuredAn inimitable character actor onscreen (The Princess Bride) and in voice (Toy Story), Wallace Shawn’s early years included playwriting, with Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985) being his eighth work, originally debuting in London and earning an Obie Award after its U.S. run.

Shawn’s play makes its return to Toronto via Shadowtime Productions in a professional and faithful production that reprises the concept of several actors playing multiple characters who make up a series of reminiscences of a young woman whose life is insular, and political and social views are somewhat askew.

Lemon (Helen Juvonen), a nickname bestowed upon the impish and rather pea-brained lead character by her influential aunt, introduces herself to the audience, recounts a grisly procedure enacted by the Nazis, and then launches into a series of vignettes. Most of the moments span periods from her childhood during the early to mid-seventies, varying in length and verbosity, before the finale repositions her from a child of 11 who witnessed marital strife and lewd behaviour to an adult that emerges from a moral gray zone and ultimately horrifies the audience with her present day stance.

From Lemon’s initial recollections that freeze and fadeout like cinematic flashbacks to lengthy, didactic arguments, Shawn’s play has a peculiar structure and momentum which starts with a bang, slides into a lull, and gradually recovers for a punchline finale that seeds the kind of confusion friends and family feel when they’re confronted by delusion, rationalized ignorance, and loathsome statements from someone they hold dear.


Aunt Dan (Joanne Latimer) and Lemon (Helen Juvonen).

Aunt Dan (marvelous Joanne Latimer) has three moments of influence which precede her eventually elimination from Lemon’s familial environment: a quasi-socialist oration on respecting blue collar work as real and valid; a surreal usage of stuffed animals to explain to Lemon the chess moves that are supposed to ensure the Viet Cong will be isolated and poised to submit to the U.S.; and an epic tear-down of Lemon’s mother (Jane Hailes) that doesn’t quite succeed because the latter can’t accept her reckless laissez-faire, anti-humanistic attitude while ordinary people are brutalized during the ongoing Vietnam War.

These events witnessed or experienced face to face by Lemon left an imprint on a child who lacked the maturity to contextualize and contrast; she essentially grew up in a bubble that vaporized when Aunt Dan died from an illness. As she admits in the play’s opening, Lemon reads books, stares at the walls, and drinks weird fruit & vegetable consommés, and avoids local and national news because they’re biased if not pure ignorant chatter. (During Aunt Dan’s massive vaunting of Henry Kissinger, she tells Lemon’s mother all journalists are “cowards” and “the purpose of governments is to use force so we don’t have to!”) Lemon’s sense of humanity is also influenced by an obsession with the Nazis because ‘might has to be right because it just seems right.’


Lemon’s parents (Jane Hailes & Philip Cairns).

Shawn’s prose sometimes parallels the madness of his characters, propelled by circuitous arguments and keywords that seem to push moments of staged drama to absurdity, but perhaps that’s what the author intended, because the initial reasonable stance of Aunt Dan shifts as she believes her own rhetoric, starts to proselytize without researching the validity of her poor facts, and affects a young and impressionable mind that’s not evil, but becomes severely misguided to the point of accepting racist, cruel philosophies. As a self-educated soul, Lemon becomes a terrible creature, and having grown up in an emotionally abusive household, audiences may be conflicted by a character still deserving a measure of compassion.

Shawn’s sense of the absurd also manifests itself in Lemon herself – Juvonen is dressed like a woman whose customized childhood clothes reflect her immature politics and moral grounding – as well as the quiet bonding moments between Lemon and her aunt, which director / sound designer Dan Spurgeon scores with saccharine, piano pieces (including Hagood Hardy’s evil “The Homecoming”).

She also takes as gospel a crazy anecdote in which Aunt Dan claims to have aided a strumpet (Breton Lalama) in setting up a cop in the U.S. for a hush kill, which is the play’s strangest sequence: its discontinuity within the play’s more realist scenes seems like Aunt Dan’s test to see how tall a tale she can spin; if taken as a test, Lemon clearly earned an F for lapping up the nonsense, while audiences were given a wacky distraction of provocative bedroom behaviour, nudity, and plenty of posterior gyrations and thrusts (which themselves evoke the bawdy behaviour in Spurgeon’s brilliant mounting of The Baby in 2015).

Shawn’s play was remounted off-Broadway in 2004, but its Toronto run in the fall of 2016 feels more than mere serendipity: his critiques against justified war, paranoia, contempt, politicians as a superior class that society should follow blindly, and the rightness of segregating and purging impure elements of society to preserve an ‘ism’ resonate with the current presidential race, and whole chunks of Aunt Dan’ monologues are hysterical for sounding like Trumpian delusions.

Aunt Dan and Lemon may have lost a bit of its shock value and impact since its debut 31 years ago, but Shawn’s play synthesizes what its characters can’t manage: learning from the past to improve their society instead of divide, conquer, and ultimately implode. Neither the Nazis’ Third Reich nor Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia survived, and the intervention and defeat of a corrupt regime by superpowers often creates a power vacuum that’s fought over by the corrupt, idealogues, or worse.

Aunt Dan and Lemon
, directed by Dan Spurgeon and produced by Drew Blakeman, concludes its run this weekend at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, with evening shows Thurs. thru Sat. at 7:30pm, and 2pm matinee shows Sat. and Sun. Check theatre listings for more info.

For some contextual info on Shadowtime Production’s show, an interview with director Spurgeon is also available.

Coming next: Twilight Time’s Frank Sinatra double-bill of Tony Rome and lady in Cement on Blu.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Comments are closed.