By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
She lives in a city (one where a great big 37-year-old Fringe starts Thursday). But small towns have always had a particular fascination for Michele Vance Hehir.
The secrets both open and closed, the partial knowledge, the gossip, the dropped hints, the shared memory, the microcosmic social hierarchy, the proprieties observed and transgressed … they’ve insinuated themselves into her plays before now.
And they’ve found their way into One Polaroid, the third of a Vance Hehir trilogy that has snuck us into the small fictional prairie town of Roseglen at different periods in its history. The Blue Hour, a full-length seven-actor play slated to run at SkirtsAfire in 2020, is post-war Roseglen. Ruination (3 short stories), a trio of intricately interlocking monologues with a mystery, which premiered at last summer’s Fringe, is Depression era Roseglen.
Now we’re back in town and it’s 1973. Two unmarried sisters of a certain age, who have a dysfunctional sibling relationship, are awaiting the annual birthday visit of their nephew.
The townspeople people came first. A decade ago, armed with a grant to create characters, Vance Hehir wrote a series of monologues “I fell in love with one of the characters,” she says. And, encouraged at the Citadel’s Playwrights Forum, “I built a play around a young girl and her family….”
And so The Roseglen Trilogy was born. But that’s not where the ideas started. “My mom was an amazing storyteller!” says Vance Hehir, a dexterous hand at creating formally intricate multi-vignette plays (Ruminations of Maud, Ruminations of Gayle) with dimensional characters. “She could actually tell you a book, or a movie. She told me the movie House of Wax, and described it so vividly and in such detail that when I actually saw it I was disappointed.”
“She told me stories of growing up in a small B.C. town in the Fraser Valley, which Chilliwack in the ‘50s was (the family arrived here when Vance Hehir was six). “She talked about the dark side, that everyone knows your business…. Her storytelling really influenced me.”
The other major inspiration, says Vance Hehir, was “the road trips we took, lots of them; it was what we could afford to do.” Prairie towns — and she’s seen copious numbers — intrigued her. Especially towns with Pentecostal currents (Vance Hehir’s dad, who’s of that religious persuasion, is the source of that fascination).
In The Blue Hour, which won the 2017 Alberta Playwriting Competition, the pastor of the Last Hope Assembly has a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl, and “it destroys everybody in that small town.” In Ruination’s three “short stories,” connections between people gradually add up and emerge into a story and a strikingly harsh one — driven by religion and reputation, prejudice and revenge. No event is stand-alone, even the mysterious burning down of the Chinese laundry.
The two sisters of One Polaroid (Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer), unmarried in their 50s, live in a Roseglen that seems to be fading into its finale. “I play with time,” says the playwright. “It moves more quickly or slowly in the course of a full day between the rising and setting of the sun.”
“Their nephew (Boyan Peychoff) always comes to visit on his birthday. And there’s silliness and cruelty,” she says. “They play ‘name that tune’. There’s humour in those family relationships, and how a third person affects a sibling relationship.”
Can the trilogy expand? “I do feel this is the final chapter,” Vance Hehir says of One Polaroid. “But….” With that “but” we’ll have to stay tuned.
One Polaroid runs at the Fringe’s Stage 9 (Telus Phone Museum) Aug. 17 to 25.