Monday, September 24, 2007

HOMECHILD by Joan MacLeod

Photo: John Krich as Alistair []

1. What can you tell us about the playwright Joan MacLeod and her previous plays?

Joan MacLeod is one of Canada's most well-known playwrights whose plays have won numerous awards, including the 1988 Prix Italia for the CBC production of her one-woman play Jewel, the Governor General’s Award for Amigo’s Blue Guitar in 1991, and the Chalmer's Award for The Hope Slide. Her plays have been produced across Canada, and in England, the United States and Europe, and translated into eight languages. Although born, raised and schooled on the west coast, MacLeod spent a number of years in Toronto where she premiered her first plays at the Tarragon Theatre. She moved back to BC in 1992 and is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Victoria.

2. Why do you think she might have chosen the subject of Canada's home children for this new play?

MacLeod's plays are always socio-political at some level, although never overtly so. Instead, her interest is in examining how larger social or political issues and events play out in the lives of ordinary people. So in her play Shape of a Girl, we see a young girl who is affected by news stories of the Reena Virk killing here in Victoria, and this provokes her to do something about a bullying problem in her own life. In Amigo's Blue Guitar (staged by UVic's Phoenix Theatre a few years back), a Salt Spring Island family takes in a Salvadorean refugee and learn more than they want to about the realities of this young man's life. In this new play, MacLeod pushes us to deal with the relatively unknown story of up to 100,000 children who were forcibly emigrated to Canada from orphanages and poor families in Scotland and England from the 1870s to the 1930s. These children were often separated from their siblings and put to work as indentured farm labourers across the country. In Homechild, we see how the legacy of Dr. Thomas Barnardo and his Barnardo Homes has affected the life of one home child, Alistair McEachern, now in his late 70s or early 80s, and the members of his family.

3. What did you feel were the strengths of this production?

This production features a lovely set design by Pam Johnson that offers us something akin to a museum diorama exhibit of a typical Eastern Ontario rural farm, where the fields outside blend impressionistically into the porch and dining room of the home itself. I loved how the sky backdrop features a number of doors that the characters enter through. With a large cast of 8 the set can feel a bit cramped for space at times, though. Director Roy Surette (who is sadly leaving the Belfry for Montreal's Centaur Theatre this season) gives us another one of his fine shows, and has cast local actor John Krich as Alistair, whose performance is at the centre of the production. Krich offers a moving yet unsentimental portrait of a man who has bottled up the truth of his past for many decades. Alistair is not a very likable man, yet somehow Krich allows us to feel for him, and when he finally reveals the secrets he has hidden for so long, in the last few minutes of the play, we share both his deep grief and his tentative joy...a very fine performance. The supporting work in the show is also very even, with solid work from Terry Tweed as Alistair's live-in sister-in-law and fussbudget Aunt Flora, Jillian Fargey as Alistair's estranged daughter Lorna, Craig March as her low-achieving brother Ewan and Andrew Wheeeler as old friend and neighbour Wesley. Belfry regulars will also enjoy seeing a couple of other favorite actors returning to its stage; Margaret Martin as neighbour and home child Dorrie and Donna White as Alistair's sister in the present, in a very quiet and focused performance. I was especially impressed by the work of Jennifer Paterson as the young Katie, the embodiment of Alistair's memory of his long-lost sister. It is very difficult for an adult actor to play a young child convincingly and I felt that Paterson was note-perfect, both physically and verbally, throughout.

4. How did you feel about the weaving of past and present in the play?

It's interesting that this was an aspect that some Toronto critics didn't much like in the first production, yet here I felt it was one of the most effective elements in the play. Whenever the young Katie entered, I held on to my Kleenex, because her story of abandonment and her endless waiting to be reunited with her much-loved older brother Alistair (who she calls Jackie) is so terribly moving; all the more so because we realize that this young girl's experience was shared in real life by so many tens of thousands of children...a national tragedy, really. And the scenes when Alistair encounters Katie in his memories and recreates scenes from their childhood, are almost too much to bear.

5. What about any aspects that you felt weren't working?

My only major criticism of this highly-recommended production is a dramaturgical one that deals with the play itself. I have a feeling that there is a bit too much going on in the play than there needs to be, and that MacLeod gives us supporting characters who offer some comic relief but who don't really drive the story forward. In my mind, this story is about Alistair, his daughter and his sister (in both remembered and present versions). In other words, I can't help wondering what this play would look like as a four-hander, pared down to its essentials. Right now the play feels a bit like taking a warm bath...we know upfront that all will end up okay. I'm wondering what it be like to experience it as more of a drama...a long cold shower. It wouldn't be as funny a play, and perhaps we would miss the laughter that helps us cope with the powerful emotions generated by the story. But maybe (for all that) it would be an angrier, more raw and perhaps even more truthful play about the damage done to so many innocent children, and how that damage causes permanent scars that are passed on, from one generation to the next.

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