By Jon Tattrie
The Fly Fisher’s Companion opens with two old men fussing with their fishing gear in a ramshackle shack near Cape Breton’s glorious Margaree River. The weather is foul, and so is the temperament of crotchety old Don (John Dartt), a workaholic businessman angry to be away from his company for a weekend of fishing with his old pal, the idealistic writer and dreamer, Wes (Don Ritchie). They are old, feeble men who have faced many hard things together – but it’s the few outstanding items they looked away from that haunt this play at Neptune’s Studio Theatre.
The basic template of the story is familiar – idealist battles cynic over the meaning or meaninglessness of life – and was covered last year at Neptune in Mesa, a play about a young idealist writer driving his cynical old father-in-law to a retirement home in Arizona. As such, it’s a bit of a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but the smart, sensitive writing of Halifax’s Michael Melski (Growing Op, Corvette Crossing) and the strong performances by the two leads lift it above the fray.
“A man who buys his tackle at Walmart will only get his salmon at Sobeys,” Wes slyly digs at one point, one of the many sharp lines in the play. Much like Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, The Fly Fisher’s Companion is very local – Cape Breton, to be precise – yet universal. Don’s body is ravaged by arthritis and aches, and he’s losing his memory to early stages Alzheimer’s disease. Wes appears to be fit as a fiddle-de-dee (his favourite expression), but we soon learn that he’s staring down a dark diagnosis. At the start of the play, Wes seems 20 years too young to be a contemporary of grumpy old Don, but he is transformed as the story unfolds, and emerges looking 20 years too old. It’s a remarkable performance by Ritchie.
Together, Ritchie and Dartt create a wonderful and all-too-rare portrait of a long, loving male friendship. At the movies and on TV, male friends are inevitable idiots of the Knocked Up variety: horny, stupid and with no ambition. Don and Wes are 3D portraits of two different men whose complex and thoughtful lives have overlapped.
I know nothing about fishing and as a vegetarian, have little interest in learning how to cast a rod or tie a fly, but Melski again lifts it out of the specific and into a universal metaphor for life, and how to make difficult choices when the short-term outcome is unknown, but the long-term outcome is inevitably death.
This is a sweet, smart play, and it’s only here until mid-May. Make it an early Father’s Day present, or send your parents to it for Mother’s Day. Trust me, you’ll fall for it hook, line and sinker.
Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and author based in Halifax.
The Fly Fisher’s Companion is at Neptune’s Studio Theatre until May 15. Call 429-7070 or go to Neptunetheatre.com for details.