Culture & Conversation

Not So Sweet Adelaide

You can’t trust appearances. Adelaide Pinchin, heroine of Tryst, currently receiving deserved ovations at the Segal Centre, learns this lesson the hard way when a handsome con man appears on the scene intent on cheating her out of everything she owns. Before the play is through, however, Adelaide manages to turn the tables and repay him in kind.

The play opens 1910. Although Queen Victoria has been dead for nine years, Victorian ideals still reign supreme in England. Women must be chaste, innocent and subservient. They have not yet won the right to vote (universal suffrage will be granted only in 1928); they are discouraged from pursuing education; and marriage and motherhood are considered primary goals. Those who fail to marry and aren’t possessed of independent means have few options. They can hire themselves out as governesses, shop girls or seamstresses.

Adelaide works as a seamstress in the back room of a London hat shop. True to the times, she has one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 20th. Within a decade, the Great War will have blasted the Victorian ethos, but even in 1910, change is in the air. And Adelaide embodies it. Her pale Victorian face conceals distinctly modern dreams and ambitions.

British playwright Karoline Leach captures the tensions of the period perfectly in this compelling two-hander. Her Adelaide is a complex mix of passivity and initiative, naiveté and knowledge. Dramatically, she has much at stake. Unlike most lower class young women, she has an inheritance — 50 pounds (equivalent today to around $35,000, according to the program notes) and a brooch bequeathed to her by a favourite aunt. When George Love, a swindler whose modus operandi involves wooing, wedding and then relieving rich spinsters of their wealth, spots Adelaide in the hat shop window wearing this precious brooch, he recognizes an easy target.

Trouble is, Adelaide proves anything but easy. Her paradoxical nature (the Victorian veneer and modern core) shines under the able direction of Diana Leblanc. Actor Michelle Giroux is moving as a woman torn between her yearning for love and the desire to create a life worthy of her abilities and intellect. In the role of George Love, C. David Johnson is riveting. Best known for his work on the television series Street Legal, he manages here to earn deep sympathy while perpetrating grave, multiple crimes.

The minimalist set designed by Astrid Janson is particularly effective, providing contrast to the period costumes. The furniture on stage is constructed out of clear, colourless plastic, lending scenes a dreamlike quality. The stage is enfolded by an undulating, silvery curtain, which can turn transparent. Lighting designer Luc Prairie does a great job providing ambiance and suggesting the play’s multiple locations through tricks of light alone.

While the struggles depicted in Tryst are far from light, the play is full of comic moments. It will have you alternately laughing and holding your breath in suspense.

Tryst continues at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts at the Saidye, 5170 Côte Ste Catherine Road, until Sunday, March 29, 2009. For reservations, call (514) 739-7944 or visit

Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer & translator whose novel, The Heart Specialist, has just been released for publication.

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