“Everyone died,” Steph (Mel Marginet) blurts out to us within the first seconds of Theatre By the River’s production of Sean Rycraft’s One Good Marriage. “Everyone’s dead.” This clearly isn’t the introduction to their first anniversary that husband Stewart (Matthew TenBruggencate) is looking for, but he rolls with it. The two, celebrating their anniversary with a half-hung banner and only the audience for company, are trying to tell us the story of how their lives drastically changed in an instant. It’s a difficult process, which results in a lot of rewinding and rehashing of earlier events as the couple comes to terms with their new status in a small town.
One Good Marriage is billed as a comedy but it’s really not; an extremely black comedy, perhaps, but while the lightness of avoidance is a presence in the show, humour is less so, and when it is, it mostly doesn’t come directly from the sad absurdity of the tragic events that are required to create black comedy. The show is still compelling and worthwhile, but under no circumstances go in looking for a laugh riot.
The quick back-and-forth rhythms in dialogue built up by the couple make up much of the show; the actors have clearly put in a lot of work polishing their timing, and it pays off in a very smooth performance. These rhythms are impressive; however, they are also unceasing and too often unchanging, only altering when Stewart tries to calm Steph down by encouraging her to focus on banal household objects (which, in its own way, is a fascinating technique). This constant rhythm, while effective in producing tension, can also have a lulling effect on the audience, particularly in the stifling atmosphere of the theatre. This is counterproductive to a show with such an unsettling catalyst and core. Once the fatal event is actually described, the horror and shock can take your breath away, but there is a lot of banter designed to keep you guessing, and occasionally this wondering what happened is the only thing keeping you going.
One Good Marriage gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition of the day-to-day realities of small-town life stacked up against the life-changing realities of dramatic death. Rhythmically, however, the show needs to decide whether the characters get a true arc, with which they can move on with their lives at the end of the play, or whether the “rhythm is gonna get you” and they are truly stuck in a Waiting For Godot-esque exploration of their lives, where they go, but do not move.