Tarragon’s “Paint Me This House of Love” Illuminates the Pain That Can’t Be Hidden With One Coat

Jessica B Hill and Jeremiah Sparks in Chelsea Woolley’s Paint Me This House of Love at Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Toronto Theatre Experience: Tarragon’s Paint Me This House of Love

By Ross

Sometimes, we say exactly what we mean to the people who matter. Yet, sometimes we speak in fragments, dropping the dangerous words into a void, hoping the one we are in need of will know a way to finish that thought so we feel seen and understood. We hope by that unconscious act of dropping off mid-moment that the other will notice the emptiness and will facilitate a spontaneous continuation; a reaching out that will bring connection into our heart and soul. In Chelsea Woolley’s complex emotional new play, Paint Me This House of Love, that hope hangs in the air, thick like toxic fumes in a room just painted, giving distorted illusions of care and connectivity marked by words unsaid. That silence speaks volumes, complex and igniting, when maybe all that is there is one thin coat of a bright color brushed haphazardly over a wall, dirty and unprimed after years of neglect.

Written with wisps of Pinter’s three-character Betrayal lingering in the corner like a dead dog’s food bowl, Chelsea Woolley (The Only Good Boy; The Mountain) unpacks a dysfunctional family of three that appears to be primed for redemption but doesn’t quite know how to do the job correctly. A father returns to his daughter, not through the hopeful window left open by her mother over all those years after abandonment, but through a door with bad locks that probably should be fixed. Possibly to keep men like this one out of her house. Or any other monster that maybe lingering inside her head after years of storytelling.

Until that very moment of entry, this figurehead lived inside her head as a world-traveling ghost; a father who had disappeared into the night with no explanation, leaving a young child with only fantastical images of Brazilian adventure delivered by post. Their engagement, at first, is ripe with complex emotions and sliced apart with need. He carries with him one bag and a complicated clutter of memories to roll out in response to his daughter who is also suffering. Maybe from some similar framework of dysfunction, where stories of love are poorly painted on drab walls to make a room feel brighter than it really is. That is unclear. Depression seems to have been the last coat painted, yet we watch this engagement with caution, never really feeling the comfort nor the connection that is needed and wanted by this young woman who is drowning and caught in a web of lies, deceit, and abandonment. Some of her own making.

Jessica B Hill and Jeremiah Sparks in Chelsea Woolley’s Paint Me This House of Love at Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

As directed with confidence by Mike Payette (Tarragon’s Cockroach), the young woman, Cecilia, played with a volcanic force by Jessica B. Hill (Stratford’s All My Sons), bounces words and phrases off this man, her father, Jules, as he stands uncomfortably with bag-in-hand, waiting for the three-week welcome it seems he came hoping for. Or is it need? It’s hard to tell exactly, as Jules, played intently by Jeremiah Sparks (Shaw’s Gem of the Ocean), doesn’t give off any air of trust. He leans in and out, hiding behind recycled memories and fragments of ideas that both pacify and infuriate his suspicious daughter. The rationale for remaining or inviting in is never really fully revealed, but the actors dig in, giving it their all, and then some.

It’s been twenty-five years since she last saw him, and as written, the two don’t seem to quite know what to do with all that conflictual need, desire, and hope. “Jules, we don’t really even know each other,” she cries out as he asks her for more than she wants to give, as the aura of trust doesn’t seem to hang on this man after being, seemingly, eight-thousand miles away living a dream without her for such a long time. Nothing about him feels authentic, or intentional, beyond maybe something unsaid and selfish. “You’ll always be my little…” Your little what? we ask. That is the unclear component, the one we are left with as they slice and shuffle forward into something that doesn’t feel right. They pull and push against and for one another, for reasons that remain conflicted, with white radio noise drowning out some of the logic that is still visible under that coat of paint.

The voicemail messages chime forward, leading us into another frame. They are from a talkative mother, nervous and anxious in her own passive way. She is also desperate for a connection, played out a bit awkwardly on the steps of a set that is almost too realistically designed by Ken MacDonald (Arena Stage/Washington’s Newsies) to service the play convincingly. Yet it does trap the family inside the same dirty walls of a past that still haunts, giving them no space to disappear from the stain of abandonment and pain. With a well-formulated lighting design by Tim Rodrigues (Soulpepper’s English) and a solid sound design by John Gzowski (Tarragon’s Post-Democracy), Paint Me… takes us deeper into a family dynamic that registers inside engagements that splinter and go silent far too often. We enter into this other coupled structure, engaging with Cecilia as she tries to connect with her complicated mother, Rhondi, dynamically portrayed by Tanja Jacobs (Shaw’s Getting Married) and perfectly costumed by Julia Surich (Tarragon’s My Sister’s Rage). There seems to be something more here, and as magnificently played out by the meticulous Jacobs, the layers are peeled away like rotting wallpaper uncovering trauma and lies on almost every wall made visible. And we can’t help but lean in, waiting and hoping for a better outcome for this young troubled woman.

Jessica B Hill in Chelsea Woolley’s Paint Me This House of Love at Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Bad men don’t come back,” she tells her daughter, who also knows that this is true, but wants to see the bright colors painted, rather than the dirt that still remains visible underneath. These are the scenes that register with more clarity, between mother and daughter, giving the piece a center of hope and care that somehow never enters the other formulation. In that house that has potential, she and her father continue to deconstruct memories of generational trauma, telling sad tall tales that don’t make sense and don’t do the job intended. The way they talk to one another remains forced, pushed to the limit by need, yet breeding tension and feeding the dishonesty of the system learned and repeated. The crowning moment remains just out of reach on the back wall, with doubtful promises of a second and third coat spilling out and thrown about carelessly. The play is a complicated tracking of historical lies and reconstructions, told to soothe and to deceive, but where do we want to place our hope? That’s the complicated question that hangs in the air.

Paint Me This House of Love never really finds an answer that fully brightens the room. Maybe that’s the point. The need for familial connection, almost without limits, is stronger than the visual paint job given. I can’t say that I stayed fully invested until the bitter end, as the walls remain unfinished, dirty with depression, and stained with lies told. Yet somewhere inside that need, maybe a fantastical possibility still exists somehow, strong enough to get past it all. Will all those lies get painted over? Will they disappear, even without being primed or repeatedly coated? I’m not that hopeful, even with that magnificently complicated mother figure standing by, waiting to save her from the father that will most likely leave her once again. That time will surely come again when he isn’t in need of her or loses the drive to keep trying, climbing out that window and leaving behind only unfinished stories of monsters and sad excuses. How will she move on from that? Or will more lies be told?

Jessica B Hill and Jeremiah Sparks in Chelsea Woolley’s Paint Me This House of Love at Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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