The usual rule is that when a son writes a play about his mother, she should look out. But Canadian writer Michel Tremblay goes against convention in the mannerly and sentimental "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again." The two-character play, being cautiously performed at Alexandria's MetroStage, is an adoring memoir, and Tremblay's affection is so complete that he gives his mother the stage in every conceivable way.
For Nana, as the mother figure is called here, it would have been a thrill to be in that unfathomable land where artists dwell -- "on the other side," she calls it. Tremblay obviously gets a kick out of putting her there, and he keeps himself -- the narrator, that is -- well out of the way; the limelight is strictly for Nana. (Well, it is until Tremblay unveils his nifty little coup de theatre at the end.) At MetroStage, Bruce M. Holmes plays the son, and for almost the entire 90 minutes he sits on one side of the stage and listens as Catherine Flye, oddly but forgivably bringing a bit of her native Britain to this Quebecois figure, chatters and scolds and dominates conversations as only an iron-willed mother can.
Tremblay writes about the narrator/son in his formative years, as he grows from a teenager old enough to talk back a little, to a young man old enough to be out on his own (and nearly fully out of the closet; Nana has a tacit understanding that her son is gay). From his chair on the side, Holmes plays the kid without a lot of adolescent-style folderol. He sends his lines toward Flye in a straightforward way, sensibly offering the young Tremblay's arguments and watching in awe as Flye's Nana replies with logic that lifts and twists and blows smoke like a stunt plane.
"I've learned to let you talk," the narrator says to her when he's a little older. "It's funnier."
True enough, at least some of the time. Flye's a hoot, full of righteous criticism and vivid detail as Nana reenacts the time she reluctantly went to see her niece in a school recital ("a vision of horror," Nana says). More often, you can sense Tremblay scrutinizing Nana's baffling answers for kernels of sense. Why, for instance, is Nana so stuck on low-grade melodramatic literature? Can't she tell it's not remotely real?
Well, sure she can, up to a point, and then why not let go? The best part of "For the Pleasure" is the sly revelation of what this relationship led to: the subtle exchange of cynical critical distance for openhearted, wide-ranging imagination. It's a sweet family portrait.
It is not, however, a snap to make this quirky character study feel full-bodied, and it's a bit curious that MetroStage -- which usually offers works that aren't done elsewhere -- is reviving a piece that Arena Stage did (not memorably) five years ago. Director John Vreeke handles the actors sensitively, but he heaps the pressure on Flye, asking her to entertain us almost single-handedly. She spends virtually every minute smack in the middle of set and lighting designer Daniel Conway's drab brown decor, looking like your garden variety dotty woman in a plaid apron with pockets big enough to hold a bushel of apples.
The less colorful passages still seem a bit perplexing to Flye, especially as the show gets started, but she's on very solid ground whenever the material is funny or touching. She's particularly insightful when Nana gets starry-eyed about the lives of people on "the other side," those artists whose number will soon include her son. That adds to the poignancy of Tremblay's fail-safe ending, when he offers his sickly mother the stage in a more figurative way. By then, the theatrical flourish that Tremblay engineers -- think "Finding Neverland" -- seems like perfect repayment for gifts that may have been unwitting, but were lavish nonetheless.
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, by Michel Tremblay. Directed by John Vreeke. Costumes, Rosemary Pardee. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Nov. 27 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.