A poignant flashback in time, David French's play That Summer (Talon, 128 pages, $15.95 paper, ISBN: 0-88922-439-0) is a detailed recollection of nearing the end of youth through a chilling sequence of events.
That Summer finds Margaret Ryan returning after forty years to a cottage on Ontario's Wolf Lake, where her family vacationed in her youth. The Margaret Ryan of 1990 is an observer on the perimeter of the set, as the unforgettable events of the summer of 1958 unfold in front of her. While their alcoholic father is distracted by marital woes, Margaret and her younger sister Daisy both careen towards the pivotal loss of virginity, under the mindful eye of neighbor and friend Mrs. Crump.
Playfully written, That Summer is teeming with subtle nuances, giving each character a surprising amount of depth in little space. Margaret is a shy youth at seventeen, but unbearably stubborn. Daisy is extroverted, yet possesses a cynical streak even at sixteen. The superstitious Mrs. Crump fuels the girls' excitement and angst with mysterious omens and foolproof concoctions.
The story is lyrical, and the dialogue smoothly incorporates quotations from both period songs and poets. Yet despite the dreamy reminiscing of yesteryear, something about this play is awry. Some details are markedly unrealistic, halting the flow of events in their track. The older Margaret Ryan explains that she is returning to Wolf Lake primarily upon the insistence of her granddaughter Caitlin. The play opens with Margaret telling thirteen year old Caitlin about the loss of her virginity in the graveyard they are visiting. As the play draws to a close, Caitlin confesses to her grandmother she felt it was necessary for Margaret to return to Wolf Lake in order to find closure to the events of 1958. Thirteen-year-olds everywhere must be thrilled David French thinks them so astute.
Likewise, the reader is left somewhat aghast at the behavior of teenaged Margaret and Daisy. Neither daughter shows respect for their father, as would be expected for 1958. While grumbling about the odd behavior of their stepmother, Margaret says "I don't want to spend every meal like a Trappist Monk." Daisy and Margaret have a scathing witticism readily directed at every facet of their father's life, which is inappropriate in light of the play's setting.
Littered throughout the dialogue are creepy references that make tragedy seemingly inevitable. As expected, after Mrs. Crump's incessant superstitious behavior and a foreshadowing dream by Margaret's boyfriend, the play cascades to a melodramatic close. Luckily, the finale holds one shocking surprise, saving French's play from being entirely predictable.
Disappointingly, That Summer is plagued by a number of nagging details which the reader cannot ignore. This woe aside, the work is charmingly sentimental. The witty humor will make you chortle, and the angst conjures sweet memories of innocence lost. ò