Serving up laughs with a greasy spoon

What play won the 1991 Canadian Authors Award for Drama? If you were to respond, Kelly Rebar’s Bordertown Café, you’d be right.

But why is it being revived at Prairie Theatre Exchange now? If you were to answer, “To showcase the incredible talent of Janet-Laine Green,” well, hell, that’s an even better reason than director Rosemary Dunsmore gave in the program — and much more descriptive of what the play does.
Don’t give into the temptation, felt by some of the theatre-goers on this night’s performance, to get up and leave as a result of the poor opening of the play. It gets better — much, much better.

The play opens with Jimmy (played by Jamie Spilchuk), a high school student, waking to the ringing of a telephone. He calls for his mother, Marlene (Jillian Fargey), to answer it. It’s Jimmy’s estranged father calling. The conflict sets up the premise of the play.

The first part of the play is simply a dialogue between mother and son regarding the impending visit of the father. The problem is that, for most of this dialogue, the mother is off-stage. Although her voice is occasionally heard in response, for most of the time the only voice is that of Jimmy’s, creating almost a monologue. Not having anyone else to look at during this “discussion,” he looks at the audience, as if addressing them, while creating this surreal disconnect.

The play is salvaged when Jimmy’s grandmother, Maxine (Green), enters. Born in Texas, she married Jimmy’s grandfather, Jim (Paul Stephen), after knowing him for a day and a half. He took her back to his Canadian border town farm where they set up house together with his parents. Maxine immediately entered into conflict with Jim’s mother and fled. Jim chased after, catching her on the American side of the border where he convinced her to return. To give her something to do, they purchased the titular Bordertown Café.

The other part of the back-story, revealed during snippets of conversation, is that Marlene met Jimmy’s father in Minnesota, and became pregnant at 15.

Jimmy’s father, whose presence is never made, is a long-haul trucker who has, on occasion, shown up at the Café to take Jimmy with him on trips. Jimmy has created a romantic notion of his father which he still holds while he waits this time for his father to pick him up and take him to Wyoming to live with him and his new wife. He never shows.

The conflict of the play devolves into anti-Americanism pitting the brash Maxine against the meek Canadian members of the family. Maxine doesn’t have any use for anything Canadian. Vivacious in personality, she has no difficulty engaging customers in conversation. They soon share their life stories with her. In return, she shares the family’s secrets with them — much to the embarrassment of the family. These exchanges lead to much of the hilarity in the play.
Paul Stephen must also be singled out for his contribution here. Playing the quiet Canadian farmer par excellence, his comic timing is exquisite. When Jimmy comments on how out of character it was for his grandfather to marry a girl he knew for such a short time, Jim responds: “They didn’t call me granddad then.”

Given the order by which the actors entered the stage at the end, Spilchuk should have had top billing. Except: he was vastly outshone by Green, who stole the show with her hilarious performance.

Although the structure of the play could be improved, the sheer comedy is outstanding. In the end, the audience members that endured left with smiles on their faces, letting you know that this was indeed good entertainment.

Bordertown Café runs until Nov. 29 at the Prairie Theatre Exchange.