Factory Theatre opens to in-house audiences for the first time in two years with Nina Lee Aquino’s production of among men. David Yee’s play takes us back to 1959, where Milton Acorn helps fellow poet, Al Purdy, work on the now-famous A-frame cabin off Roblin Lake. Inspired by the work of these artists, Yee crafts a rugged depiction of male friendship, self-actualization and creative yearning.
With the firewood frozen, Purdy and Acorn crumple endless sheets of newspaper for the old stove, desperate to keep the fire up and their bodies in motion. The winter cold isn’t the only threat, an elitist Canadian literary establishment looms over their feverish efforts to define their artistry.
Most of the play is meandering and anecdotal. The rough-and-tumble Purdy and Acorn get drunk, discuss poetry and prod each other—cruel and comforting in equal measure. Ryan Hollyman (Purdy) and Carlos Gonzalez Vio (Acorn) have compelling chemistry as they negotiate the vulgar and sublime symbiosis that characterizes Yee’s portrait of these icons.
Though the spectre of Purdy’s wife Eurithe is frequently conjured, this manly pairing feels like the marriage of the story. Each of them is a home-maker in their own way. Purdy is drawn to domestic tasks, while Acorn, the brawny carpenter, maintains the structure. This dynamic is exploited to gloriously comedic effect in Purdy’s disastrous attempt to fix a hole in the floorboards while Acorn is away. It is a slow-burn that culminates in hilarious spectacle.
Though each enjoys their deliberate posturing, Hollyman has the more consistent, naturalistic presence. Vio is so focused on the cadence and quality of his voice that he occasionally stumbles with lines. His loutish persona comes off as affectation. His final moments, though, are undeniably arresting. Particularly stirring is his rendition of Acorn’s “I Shout Love”—it is fierce, full of heartbreak and defiance.
As they name-drop established contemporaries—Gwendolyn MacEwen, Michael Ondaatje, Earle Birney—Acorn and Purdy must wrestle with their personal demons before defining a place among them. The most compelling aspect of Yee’s script rises to the surface quite late, when these men finally discard the protective banter and expose their ache.
Joanna Yu’s set is a rustic hug—an immense yet intimate world of rafters and weathered furniture. The main area feels realistically cluttered and lived-in, drifting whimsically into an expressionistic space at the fringes—where crumpled sheets of paper hang delicately in the air. Always present, sometimes grasped at—this stylized flourish evokes a history of discarded thoughts.
Yee conveys deep affection for the vibrant Canadian poetry scene at a pivotal moment in our artistic history. And for the art form itself. He also pokes some self-deprecating fun at the legitimacy of awards. “The GG (Governor General’s Award)… they give that to anybody.” And Aquino showcases her flair for blending realism with playful flights of fancy. among men has charm, abundant humour and, eventually, solid emotional punch.