The Trouble With Mr. Adams: play about him doesn’t work

FORBIDDEN LOVE: The affair of student Mercedes McPfefferidge (Sydney Owchar), left, and teacher Gary Adams (Chris Earle) is at centre of Mr. Adams' troubles in play at Tarragon Theatre.
FORBIDDEN LOVE: The relationship of student Mercedes McPfefferidge (Sydney Owchar), left, and teacher Gary Adams (Chris Earle) is at the centre of Mr. Adams’ troubles in play at Tarragon Theatre.


The Trouble With Mr. Adams, by Gord Rand, directed by Lisa Petersen, Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, running to Nov. 29.

The Trouble With Mr. Adams is that, unfortunately, his show is a return to form for the Tarragon.

After three plays I thoroughly enjoyed (Infinity, Blind Date, and An Enemy of the People) and two I largely enjoyed (Cake and Dirt and Much Ado About Nothing), here is an example of what I had previously come to expect from the theatre: A script with a provocative premise that confused when it wanted to say something profound, and a game cast hamstrung by dialogue that sounds like something an ambitious drama student might write, but nobody would ever say.

Still, I can imagine a certain audience enjoying this play. For the sake of that audience, I will refrain from discussing specific plot details, save two:

The first is that volleyball coach Gary Adams (Chris Earle) is in love with one of his students, 16-year-old Mercedes McPfefferidge (Sydney Owchar). His admission of this fact, and his claim that she loves him back, is one of the first lines in the show. The screw on which the plot turns is whether he and Mercedes consummated their relationship, which Adams vehemently denies and which her offstage parents, old friends of Adams and his wife Peggy (Philippa Domville), obviously believe.

The second is the play’s structure, which is a series of two-handers between Adams and Peggy, Adams and Mercedes, and Adams and his lawyer Barbara (Allegra Fulton). Director Lisa Petersen stages each scene as if the audience doesn’t exist, on a spare rectangular set designed for us to watch from two sides, as if we’re spying on Mr. Adams. It’s an effective approach, and all four actors commit admirably to their characters, though some are better served by the script than others. Barbara, in my opinion, is especially flat and so, comparatively, is Fulton (whom I’ve seen in CanStage’s Shakespeare in the Park, so I know she’s capable of better).

I didn’t hate The Trouble With Mr. Adams, but I disliked the way it approached its central topic. What’s Rand trying to say about the relationships that can develop between students and their favourite teachers? About the hair-trigger societal response that accompanies any action that could be construed as inappropriate? (While there’s no doubt that Adams acted inappropriately, the specific action he’s charged with — and it’s not kissing or sex with Mercedes — is ludicrous.) What was Mr. Adams thinking, exactly? Do the play’s sympathies lie with him or Mercedes’ parents?

The answers illustrated by the show are murky at best, contradictory at worst, capped by an ending that apparently undermines Adams’ motivation for his actions in the last scene. I’m all for an ending that reveals a character’s questionable choices were driven by something other than what we believed, but the motivations for Adams’ actions suggested by the ending didn’t make any more sense to me than the reasons which had been suggested 30 seconds before.

Perhaps I would have reacted differently if I were a parent. Perhaps I’ll understand Mr. Adams in 10 years. I also doubt Rand’s intended audience was someone related to a teacher who knows firsthand the long road to being cleared of false charges.

In high school, I remember chatting with some of my teachers about student/teacher relationships, and all admitting to being on their guard when it came to potentially inappropriate interactions. I also remember having a crush on one of my favourite teachers, and in retrospect am impressed by how well she navigated our relationship. I don’t envy teachers that element of their job, any more than I envy the parents of a starstruck 16-year-old who believes she’s in love with her teacher.

That said, I still think I would have enjoyed a play that explored the subject well, and for me The Trouble With Mr. Adams wasn’t it. To be honest, I enjoyed the closing song, Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” more than the show, and while the (predominantly older) audience applauded at the end, there was no hooting, whistling, or standing ovation.

But hey, that set was really nice.