Vertigo Theatre’s The Lonely Diner serves up mystery with a satisfying side of danger

It seems like most towns between Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and Saint-Pierre, Newfoundland have a tale about visits from Al Capone during Prohibition. The legendary Chicago mobster certainly did big business bootlegging Canadian booze, which became legal in most provinces during the 1920s, so he probably did spend a bit of time here — although if you take all of the likely apocryphal stories as true, he would hardly ever have had time to show his face in Chicago.

The glee with which people across the country rush to tell their Capone stories lends credibility to the premise of Beverley Cooper’s The Lonely Diner, on stage at Vertigo Theatre this month. The story revolves around Lucy Milton, a disillusioned housewife in rural Southern Ontario in 1928. Hit by difficult pre-Depression financial circumstances, unable to make a living from the 60 acres of land surrounding their house, she and her husband Ron and their daughter Sylvia have turned their house into a roadside diner. Lucy is vocally unhappy with her circumstances, longing for a life of more glamour and excitement than can be found in their sleepy little town.

Even as the play opens with the family cleaning up after closing time, there are hints that they have secrets. Ron and Sylvia go out for the evening, leaving Lucy home alone, when a stranger appears at her door — but seemingly not the man she was expecting. He calls himself Mr. Mascarpone (“like the cheese”) and says that his car has broken down nearby. He talks his way into the house, ostensibly for a glass of water, and ends up improbably offering her $50 to sit still and let him make fresh pasta for her. His behaviour grows increasingly suspicious, and soon his friend “Snorky” arrives to join him. Lucy recognizes him from newspaper photos as the famous “Scarface,” as Capone was known, and the brush with fame gives her a taste of the glamour she has been craving, along with a degree of danger that likely wasn’t part of her plan.

Vertigo is built on a foundation of mystery genre theatre, but this is a mystery only in the broadest sense — motives are unclear, and secrets are plentiful. Cooper’s words and director Kelli Fox’s effective staging combine to create a palpable sense of danger from the first few minutes, and the menacing tone builds through the two acts to a satisfying pinnacle. As a character study, it isn’t quite as successful, partly because Lucy is just a little too bitter from the outset. Shawna Burnett plays Lucy with a hard edge. In her hands, Lucy is clearly unhappy, and we feel her wishing for bigger and better things, so we understand the perilous choices she has made — but she doesn’t have sufficient vulnerability for us to feel badly for her when her choices lead to places she didn’t expect.

Scott Reid’s set is efficient but eloquent, painting a picture of Lucy before a word is spoken, but perhaps a bit brighter and more modern than I was expecting for a home that is essentially a harbinger of the Great Depression. Performances, costume and staging otherwise combine to create a picture of the Milton family as somewhat muted, and Curt McKinstry and Stafford Perry as the two American visitors inject literal and metaphoric colour into the scenario with the help of Hanne Loosen’s costume design. They take advantage of the sharp humour inherent in the dialogue, but not so prominently as to detract from the danger that they represent. They are well-realized characters who have some depth of their own, which makes you want to follow them to their next adventure to see what trouble they stir up.

The Lonely Diner is a solid thriller and a good bet even if your usual menu is murder mysteries.

(Photo, left to right, Stafford Perry, Shawna Burnett & Curt McKinstry, courtesy Citrus Photography.)

The Lonely Diner runs at Vertigo Theatre until April 8. For tickets please click here.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.