Noel Lynch is a likeable guy. Sure, he’s feckless, an alcoholic, the embodiment of underachievement and over-denial. But he wants to do the right thing. And by the end of Minding Frankie – Shay Linehan’s stage adaptation of the novel of the same name by the late and much-cherished Irish writer Maeve Binchy – Noel has indeed done the thing that’s right.
For Noel (played by the ever-reliable Lawrence Evenchick), that means mending his ways and taking on the single parenthood of a new-born girl named Frankie. Seems Noel and the mother, Stella Dickson (Vivian Burns), had slept together at a blues festival. When Noel, a stock clerk who still lives with his parents, finds out the pregnant Stella is dying of cancer (Binchy never objects to piling on the complications), he agrees to raise the little girl.
The struggle to gain custody of Frankie, the battle against his own worst proclivities and the rallying ‘round of family and community to help care for the infant is the heart of this story, which frequently tilts toward the glib and the coy.
And that’s the real problem with this two-actor, multi-character show, which is the first-ever stage adaptation of a Binchy novel. The script, set mostly in Dublin, is less than compelling and too self-conscious for its own good. Lines like “weeds are just flowers no one loves” and “I can’t make an omelet; how could I make a baby?” — Binchy was nothing if not fond of celebrating the ordinary person in speech and event — don’t help the situation.
Fortunately, Evenchick is a fine actor. Adept at using his face and small movements to telegraph thought and emotion, he reveals a great deal about Noel, a man who keeps himself under wraps except when he lets loose with alcohol.
He also knows how to use his resonant voice. “Always the fool,” says Noel of himself at one point and, though far from the truth, in Evenchick’s mouth it’s a heartbreaking pronouncement of a person who’s been a lifelong disappointment to himself.
Opposite Evenchick, Burns primarily plays Moira Tierney, a social worker responsible for overseeing the case of young Frankie. She’s often in conflict with Noel, who’s determined to hang on to the child in the face of Moira’s wish to see her adopted.
Of course, Moira lugs about her own baggage, including the ghost of her late, emotionally distant mother, a complex relationship with her father (played by Evenchick), a bungled social services case that haunts her still, and a rootlessness Moira attempts to salve with work just as Noel medicates his self-loathing with alcohol.
Burns also plays Stella, who is featureless when she deserves more grit.
Other characters people the stage from time to time – Moira’s mother (Evenchick), an annoying shop clerk (Burns) and so on. Playing multiple characters is tough, and neither actor has yet perfected it.
John P. Kelly directs the show, which grinds slow toward the end of the first act, but picks up nicely in the second. He’s also the producer under the banner of SevenThirty Productions, which is premiering Minding Frankie in North America.
Played out on a minimal set by David Whiteley, Minding Frankie is more than just pablum. But stick-to-the-ribs it’s not.
Minding Frankie is by SevenThirty Productions. It’s at The Gladstone until Jan. 26. The show was reviewed Thursday. Tickets: Gladstone box office, (613) 233-4523, thegladstone.ca