I had never heard of the playwright James Saunders when I walked into Backstage Theatre Company’s production of his ‘A Scent of Flowers,’ directed by Matthew Reeder. But I left the performance with sound desire to look up the rest of his oeuvre. ‘A Scent of Flowers,’ from 1966, is surreal, off-kilter and earnestly existential. Like many plays of that era, it wears its Absurdist affiliations proudly, while also finding room for a bit of heart amidst the madness.
The play centers on Zoe (Jess Berry) a young college student who has recently passed on. Except, while she has certainly died, she is still very much present. Zoe carries on with her family members, gravediggers, really anyone who will listen, (The gravediggers prove especially receptive) and s her funeral slowly progresses, she revisits memories of life, her various loves and losses, while trying to forestall the inevitable, embodied by the ghoulish undertaker, Mr Scrivens (a chilling Josh Hambrock).
Berry shoulders the weight of this show-carrying role with great skill. And while the cast is uniformly lovely, special mention has to be made of Michael Pacas as her frivolous yet melancholic uncle Edgar and Jon Stutzman as the gravedigger Fred, the shows quietest and kindest soul. The design too is excellent, with a Stephen Ptacek”s pervasive soundscape, Heath Hay’s strikingly spare set and John Kelly’s moody lighting building a world where the inner and the outer spill endlessly into one another: a sort of spiritual estuary.
Saunders may have long faded from prominent view, but Backstage makes the case that he is a playwright worth revisiting. While the show lacks many moments of big emotional catharsis (it’s far too English for that) the show nonetheless casts a spell that days later is still hard to shake.