Metro Weekly

Fish Tale

The mystery and hope of a child are slowly eroded in Canadian playwright Morris Panych's dark comedy

The end of childhood is a rite of passage to be delayed and then mourned. It’s the moment when we no longer view the world through a lens of innocence and hope. Rarely, if ever, is this shift triggered by a positive event.

From the beginning of Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, the audience is warned that this moment lies ahead. Iris (Susan Lynskey), a precocious 10 year old, announces at the start that ”these are the last few days of my childhood.” And, as expected, the fun and mystery and hope of a child are slowly eroded in Canadian playwright Morris Panych’s dark comedy.

Childhood’s end: Lynskey
(Photo by Colin Hovde)

Making its premiere in the United States, Girl in the Goldfish Bowl is a funny, poignant look at the inevitable changes we all must endure to enter the gates of adulthood. The death of her goldfish is only the first tragedy that Iris must face during the days when U.S. warships are heading towards Havana and the whole world hangs in the balance.

Set in the ’60s, on the west coast of Canada where local industry is fueled by the fish cannery, Iris’s life is in as much upheaval as is the rest of the world. While burying a frozen fish stick in honor of her departed (and flushed) goldfish Amahl, Iris finds a man washed up on the shore whom she believes will be the glue to keep her world together.

Iris brings Mr. Lawrence (Michael Russotto) into her home, where life teeters on the edge of destruction. Like Amahl’s final struggle to stay alive and not float belly-up, Iris’s parents, Owen and Sylvia (Bobby Smith and Kathleen Coons), are also waiting to see if their marriage will live to see another day. Sylvia convincingly wonders what life might exist for her outside her home. Owen, meanwhile, spends his days drawing geometric shapes and dreaming of Paris where the streets form symmetrical patterns that must make life grand.

Rather than solving problems, as Iris had hoped, the true identity of the Mr. Lawrence preoccupies the adults in Iris’s world: Is he a Russian spy, a mental patient, or a reincarnated Amahl whose job it is to protect the world from annihilation?

As Sylvia sees hope for her escape in this stranger, the confused Mr. Lawrence expresses his own attractions towards Iris’s father, who is also fending off the advances of the alcoholic tenant, Miss Rose (Susan Ross), creating a geometric shape similar to the ones that Owen spends his days drawing.

Iris both observes and plays a central role in these adult trysts, existing simultaneously in the fishbowl and observing it from the outside. Lynskey captures the exuberance of youth, inhabiting Nicholas Vaughn’s sparse set as only a child would — climbing over the couch, hiding under the desk, and peering down from the stairs. Lynskey truly blossoms in this role, delivering her lines in a high childlike voice to remind the audience that despite the wit and wisdom of her words, she is a youngster.

The women dominate this production. Coons delivers a strong performance as a mother on the edge, torn between leaving her family behind and the hope of another life that still exists in her heart. Ross as the desperate boarder brings a level of levity and humor to the play to balance Iris’s more ironic and dark humor.

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As the enigmatic Mr. Lawrence, whose ticks and constant state of confusion make him more childlike than Iris, Russotto has a difficult role to play. Whether this persona is a ruse being conducted by the character or not, Russotto’s performance feels like someone who is trying too hard to play a part.

The setting is minimal, comprised mostly of a cluttered living room, one that could easily feel claustrophobic to a mother wanting more out of life. To expand the stage and provide glimpses deeper into the home, director Gregg Henry occasionally reveals the actors inhabiting the rest of the house from behind a scrim. Barely more than snapshots, this device is used only enough to accent the key moments of the story while not becoming tiresome.

As the play draws to close, you hope in vain that it will last a few minutes longer. However, when the inevitable occurs and Iris’s childhood is over, it is handled with grace. Seldom does a life experience such as Iris’s need to be re-lived. MetroStage’s production is the exception.