By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The fulcrum of Katherine Koller’s Last Chance Leduc — the third in her Alberta Landworks Trilogy about human relationships destabilized by seismic shifts in industry — is the moment of Alberta’s gold rush. I refer, of course, to oil — and the discovery in the winter of 1947, of a vast deep Devonian sea of it near a small Alberta farm town.
Alberta was on the map. Nothing would ever be the same after that in “the land of the free.” Including the land. And there’s a character in the play, old Cree trapper/ earth mother/ sage Nôhkum (Alison Wells), to speak to that.
Since Leduc #1 actually happens in the course of Last Chance Leduc — offstage, conjured in lighting and shadowplay in Tracy Carroll’s production — the play contains the Just Before of “the big show” and the Just After.
That’s where we find Ev (Emma Houghton), an ex-Saskatchewan farm girl with a baby in a shack in the bush near the oil rig where her husband Wes (Evan Hall) is currently working, or rather over-working. Ev spends her time waiting — for Wes to get back from his shifts and double-shifts, for spring, for a garden, for time to pass, for the impending moment they have to move again.
This, as you will glean, is not a satisfying way of life. We lost the family farm for this? In this respect Last Chance Leduc doesn’t need oil; it joins a long line of plays about marriages threatened by workplace obsessions: the long hours of one partner, the boredom of the other. For his part Wes is becoming increasingly agitated and desperate: drilling in the area has been a bust, over and over, “five years of dry wells.” And the moment approaches when the boss will pull the plug, so to speak.
The other character, who’s from Ev’s previous farm life, is Wes’s best buddy and co-worker Tricky (Oscar Derkx). His attentions to the neglected Ev create tension and a sort of love triangle, at least in the minds of the men.Wes doesn’t even like sharing Ev with her new friend Nôhkum.
The marriage is clearly on the rocks, and despite its promise of prosperity, the excitement of the big oil discovery doesn’t in itself change that. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” says Ev, on the subject of waiting around for Wes. Will love overcome? Will Ev and Wes be able to move forward together, as they will say ‘e’re long in corporate boardrooms? Will Wes and Tricky stay friends?
There’s an intricate, if somewhat meandering, narrative — farms, parents both estranged and not, urban life vs. the bush — that unspools in Last Chance Leduc to answer all the above questions. And there’s the Indigenous seer Nôhkum, in tune with the natural world, wolves included, and with the female principle of continuity. “All mothers speak from the river…. We are the river,” she says to her new friend Ev. This is a theme she returns to repeatedly. “We are never alone…. We are the river, all the mothers.”
Wells brings a certain charm and welcome lightness to this ponderous epigrammatic specialty. But it’s a tendency that seems to be catching. Soon Ev is saying “the river is you; the river is me.” Tricky is explaining to Wes that Ev’s need for a garden as “it’s the land in her … it’s her giving back” (he should give up the oil patch and try the arts). And even Wes is showing symptoms of that incantatory contagion: “I’m going to keep you close like water on rock.”
The actors are appealing and commit to the story, even in these more “written” artifices and repetitions. But epigrammatic wisdom does not always spoken dialogue make, in truth. Having said that, I must add that the performances are alert; there’s chemistry in Carroll’s top-drawer cast. Houghton brings a lovely musing, watchful quality to Ev. The dynamic between Hall’s fierce, excitable Wes, on a short fuse, and the playfulness of lovestruck Tricky, is compelling, as set forth by Hall and Derkx.
In tune with the narrative tensions of the play, Sarah Karpyshin’s design, with Kai Villneff’s moody lighting, creates a claustrophobic shack world unnervingly abutting against an oil-splattered canvas backdrop. Behind that, we see stylized shadow choreography of Wes and Tricky working on a derrick.
“We can get it back, our Leduc,” says Wes late in a play that sets a relationship crisis against an epochal economic dislocation. Not really, judging by the current Alberta landscape. Oil seeps through every seam, every pore, in the weave of this place.
Last Chance Leduc
Written by: Katherine Koller
Directed by: Tracy Carroll
Starring: Emma Houghton, Evan Hall, Oscar Derkx, Alison Wells
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through May 19 (with 12:30 p.m. matinees May 15 and 17)