By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Welcome to the team!” says a mysterious executive (Laura Raboud), to the street kid she’s just recruited. “I really believe in you.”
Team spirit: It’s music to the ears of Peach (Alexandra Dawkins), who ricochets through a desperately lonely, hard-scrabble existence of low-level crime, minor scores, temporary fixes. Even more seductive to the wary new recruit is the concept of family, sisterhood, home. And ah, the beautiful two-storey family house with a wrap-around porch that is the physical embodiment of the abstract concept “rich.”
Nicole Moeller’s intriguingly crafted new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, premiering at Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre, unspools from the worldly skepticism that all rescues come with strings attached. There’s a price tag on love and the precious sense of belonging. A taste of it is never enough. And that being the case, what does justice mean?
Here’s another question that occurred to me, watching The Ballad of Peachtree Rose: Who writes stage thrillers? In this country, almost no one. And you can see why; they’re hard to pull off. The storytelling is tricky: what starts in mysterious murk is gradually lit. The plot has to take expected turns and angles that surprise the characters (or some of them) as much as us. Information is withheld and leaked out, bit by bit; suspense escalates. Moeller scores on all of the above, with the bonus of a social perspective on crime. And we have the fun of connecting the dots — or arguing that they don’t quite connect.
(This is not, of course, an evening about the professional challenges of theatrical scribes. But it’s devilishly hard to write about a thriller without spilling a spoiler. Just saying.)
I digress. The play, and Brenley Charkow’s adrenalized production, land us, instantly, into a high-speed swirl, with characters who don’t explain who they are, and where they’ve been. Who is Max, anyhow? Everything about Max’s line of work, including the other employees and associates (all played, with smart precision, by Shannon Blanchet), is shady. Clearly she works for a high-level criminal organization with cross-country connections, and an aversion to using FedEx. OK, fancy parties in Toronto are one thing; but no one just ups and goes to Winnipeg for no reason.
Max undertakes a makeover upgrade on the latest ragtag employee: shopping, a Saskatchewan Drive apartment with a view, fancy clothes, free drinks, a more confident walk. “Confidence means you could kill someone, but you choose not to.” (note to self … oh, never mind).
Daniela Masellis’s clever minimalist set speaks volumes: a warehouse of unmarked cardboard storage containers (that Max expressly forbids Peach to open) on moveable shelving that reconfigures the playing space. So does Sauvé MacBean’s score, dominated by the sounds of the Tragically Hip. In the Backstage Theatre we surround the action in a U-shape configuration.
Weaving through the play, on the sidelines waiting for a turn to speak, is Belle (the excellent Bobbi Goddard) who mourns, furiously and feelingly, her loss: in an unsolved crime her mother was murdered and no application of “justice” will ever be a proper redress. She’s a little repetitive, in truth. But I guess you could argue that’s what it means to be a victim, trapped in a memory by anger undimmed by time. And Belle has narrative duties, too, announcing the passage and dislocations of time that move the play forward and backward. “one month goes by…”
The characters are engagingly set forth by Charkow’s cast, who are tasked with holding dark secrets close to the chest and letting them loose sparingly. As the twitchy Peach, Dawkins compellingly conveys the sense of a predator/prey whose existence has always depended on alertness and perpetual motion. Raboud’s brisk and vivid Max, whose cunning operates at a more refined level than that of her new associate, can (and does) wield the mantra “honesty, loyalty, integrity” on a spectrum from irony to absolute sincerity. She doesn’t walk if she can stride; she appears and exits at top speed. Is she a hard heart softened by Peach? A criminal stage manager? Blanchet has the fun of playing a gallery of losers and winners.
And speaking as we are of fun, you’ll be able to claim the thriller fun of arguing about the outcome (so far I’ve heard three possible interpretations, convincingly promoted, by three different people). What seems more certain is that the world — Edmonton, actually — is a harsh and treacherous place for the characters of The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Its victims are its victimizers, its betrayals and its rescues are indistinguishable at 100 paces. And justice is an elusive concept, a matter of deal-brokering not truth.
Meet the playwright in this 12thnight PREVIEW.
The Ballad of Peachtree Rose
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Nicole Moeller
Directed by: Brenley Charkow
Starring: Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, Bobbi Goddard, Shannon Blanchet
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Nov. 10
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).