Finding their way back to love

When you only have three weeks to turn words on the page into a full-fledged stage show, it helps to have a running start.

Fortunately for director Derek Ritschel, the stars of Sexy Laundry, Melodee Finlay and Ralph Small, were off to the races from day one. Finlay and Small have acted together many times throughout their careers, which meant they could immediately get to work figuring out what made their characters tick.

“There’s a comfort level because we already know each other, rather than two strangers coming to the table and having to find an energy. He knows all my idiosyncrasies and neuroses,” Finlay said with a laugh.

“And she knows mine,” Small grinned.

“The familiarity here doesn’t breed contempt,” he added. “It breeds a certain level of trust and freedom to work together and to help each other out without being overly self-conscious.”

Feeling comfortable may be helpful for the actors, but it’s the very problem that their characters are dealing with. Henry and Alice’s long marriage has become as comfortable as an old couch, but their relationship is showing signs of fraying around the edges. Alice wants to recapture the spark that drew them together in the first place and thinks a weekend away at a swanky hotel with a copy of Sex for Dummies is just the ticket. But they soon discover that their issues run deeper than what’s happening (or isn’t) in the bedroom.

“As a woman of a certain age, I know all those things (Alice) is feeling – that she’s put on a little weight, that she’s feeling a little less attractive, that he doesn’t really find her (appealing) any more,” Finlay said. “Life happens, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other, but you get comfortable in the being of it. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the relationship, you still need to make the effort, and listen.”

“I think we both agree that this play is about two people trying to find their way back to each other,” Small said. “They’ve lost their way through age and work and being beaten down by life. They haven’t lost each other – they’re still very much in love. But they don’t know how to approach it the way they used to.”

Canadian playwright Michele Riml’s script is full of raw, emotionally charged moments interspersed with witty humour. But rather than playing the one-liners for laughs, Finlay and Small aim to have all the dialogue ring true.

“I really think the magic is when you just play the honesty of it,” Finlay said. “Life is funny, even when you’re not trying to be funny.”

“We kind of let (the humour) happen organically,” Small added.

Finlay sees Sexy Laundry as a reminder about the importance of communication in a relationship.

“We expect our partner to be a mind reader, and that’s never the case. You have to just say to the person what you need, what you want. They’re trying to do it, but after so much of not saying things, they’re out of practice,” she said.

During one intense night away, Henry and Alice really see each other for the first time in years and remember just how much they care about each other.

“Even though it seems at the outset that these people have turned away (from each other), we want the audience to see that there is still something there that’s worth coming back together for,” Finlay said.

“Then you realize that there’s so much love with this couple.”

This is the second go at Sexy Laundry for both actors, with Small having played Henry at the Victoria Playhouse Petrolia in 2009 and Finlay portraying Alice at Lighthouse in 2009.

“But we’re different people now,” Finlay said. “And it’s been long enough in between that even though we have fond memories of that time, I don’t really remember what I did (as Alice). It’s long enough that I’m not trying to recreate anything. And now our life experiences 10 years later come to the table, with hopefully a bunch of wonderful things to add to the characters.”

Small said playing Henry and Alice again some years later means he and Finlay won’t have to rely on their imaginations as much as they did when they were younger, since their performances will be more grounded in real-life experience.

“This time around, I don’t think we’re going to try to act our way through any of it. We’re really going to try and relive these people’s experiences,” he said. “That’s a great thing to tackle at this time in our lives and our careers.”

Small added that returning to this show alongside good friends feels different.

“It just feels more personal – working with Mel again, working with Derek in this environment, and working on something that has so many layers to it, and so much richness in its material of the human experience – of our own lives’ experience,” he said. “So it feels a little more rewarding, in a way.”

Getting to spend six weeks in Port Dover doesn’t hurt either, Finlay added.

“I love it here. When I cross that bridge and come into town, it’s like a different world. My shoulders just relax,” she said. “My experience here has always just been joyful.”

Small said having the support of the entire community makes performing at Lighthouse something special.

“The feeling of collegiality, that we’re all in this together. That we’re all working together to produce a great product. It’s creative, it’s fun,” he said. “Derek is just the gold standard of a human being in many ways. There’s trust, there’s love, there’s support. That’s what keeps me coming back.”