By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The award-winning Michele Vance Hehir play that launches the ninth annual SkirtsAfire Festival Thursday at the Westbury Theatre takes us to place we’ve been before.
Welcome to Roseglen, a small fictional prairie town that we’ve visited at different times in its history. In Vance Hehir’s Ruination (3 short stories), which premiered at the 2017 Fringe we were there during the Depression. The next summer, with One Polaroid, we were in Roseglen 1973: the train doesn’t stop there any more; the school is gone; the town is on a long slow fade-out into oblivion. Last one to leave turn out the lights.
The Blue Hour, Vance Hehir’s full-length full-bodied (seven-actor) play, getting its premiere at SkirtsAfire, takes us back to Roseglen, post-World War II. It’s the culmination of a trilogy with interlocking characters, cultural and religious cross-currents, social hierarchies, generational tensions, ethnic prejudice, fractured families and dark secrets with centrifugal ripples — fuelled by gossip, wrapped in dreams (and disappointments), circumscribed by an ever-present sense of being watched.
“It’s a memory play,” says Vance Hehir. “I wanted to spread the poetry that exists in that world.”
But her Our Town, prairie-style, isn’t some bucolic vision of life beyond the clutches of urban corruption. At the centre of The Blue Hour is is a struggling single mother (Nicole Saint-Martin) and her kids: 14-year-old Jonah (Isaac Andrew) and 15-year-old Bonnie (Helen Belay). The latter, suffocated by the rigorous fundamentalist proscriptions shared by her mom, is desperate to leave town and find a place for her musical talents in the big wide world. It’s the relationship between Bonnie and the new Pentecostal pastor (Ian Leung) that will rock the town to the core.
The playwright is, as she says, irresistibly drawn to the acute minimalism of small towns. And it’s not because she has first-hand nostalgia to tap. “My parents grew up in Chilliwack, and we moved to Edmonton when I was five or six.… But my mother was a marvellous storyteller.” Her stories of growing up in a smallish town” planted the seed, Vance Hehir thinks. “She’d ‘tell’ a book or a movie, and I’d feel I’d read or seen it.”
The “environment of surveillance” was something Mom did not like about living in a small town,” says Vance Hehir. “At 18 she moved to Vancouver.” When Vance Hehir, as a teenager, fantasized about a reverse migration, moving from city to town, her mom was aghast. “She squelched that idea!”
When she created Bonnie, with her yearning to enlarge her horizons, speak French, sing Piaf instead of gospel, Vance Hehir was taking her cue from her mom’s reaction. “Bonnie feels suffocated. Trapped. And her possibilities, as she’s come to realize, are limited. Maybe she could be a teacher. But there are so few choices.”
The Blue Hour started as a monologue, one of a quartet of 15-minute monologues Vance Hehir wrote while in the Citadel’s Playwrights Forum nearly a decade ago. And it gradually gained characters and storylines, and length, as a two-act play about a young girl and her family.
Her mentor? The great Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy, who advised her “to go back and look at every beat, every pause, to make the script as tight as you can!”
Like Murphy, whose playwright’s mantra is “it’s never good vs. evil; It may be combative, but it’s always right vs. right,” Vance Hehir is a writer of subtlety and oblique angles. And there is nothing simple about her take on (organized) religion or her multi-dimensional characters. The pastor, for example, on paper the villain of the piece, “struggles to be a good person,” says Vance Hehir. “He’s a damaged person, who’s glommed on to religion as a way of controlling (his impulses)…. He’s the most complicated character.”
The mayor, Hank (Robert Benz), who’s a kind of father figure to Bonnie and Jonas, is “a lovely anchor in the town. People are drawn to him; his is the religion of hope.”
Director Annette Loiselle, SkirtsAfire artistic director, whose eye was caught by The Blue Hour, an Alberta Playwriting Competition winner, a couple of years ago, says its appeal is “the human connections. It’s very layered that way. Religion can be helpful or hurtful….There is sympathy for all the characters; it’s not black and white. It’s very gray!” The subject matter includes the darkest of subjects, but The Blue Hour, she says, is “funny and charming, too.”
Loiselle, an actor of note and one of co-founders of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, wasn’t a small-town kid herself (she grew up on an acreage north of Namao). But her husband is from Villeneuve; in fact, they got married in the church there. So The Blue Hour feels automatically evocative to her.
With its size, scope, and stage population of seven actors, The Blue Hour is responsible for SkirtsAfire’s move to embrace locations in addition to its home turf on and around Alberta Avenue. “We had to have a real theatre,” says Loiselle of the adventurous mainstage move to the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. And the lobby board room there is where you’ll find the annual Peep Show of new play staged readings (curated by Tracy Carroll), always a hot SkirtsAfire draw. This year’s playwrights: Jessy Ardern (Kit & Joe) and Giorgia Severini (Border Breakdown).
The festival theme is “Complicated,” as Loiselle explains, a thought with far-reaching reverb, that unspools from The Blue Hour. “Our human impulse is to simplify, to put people in boxes. And that (tendency) can get us into trouble; we create monsters….” “Complicated” gets tangible form in an interactive Westbury lobby installation by Betty Hushlak and Deanna Finnman.
SkirtsAfire is not abandoning Alberta Avenue. “A lot of the programming there is very experimental,” says Loiselle of a plethora of cross-disciplinary events (to which admission is always by donation). At the Nina Haggerty Gallery, for example, She Moves is a multi-ethnic multi-company cross-cultural dance collage. Stephanie Florence’s installation there melds Hayley Moorhouse’s play Suspension to visuals inspired by the March edition of Cardiac Theatre’s Alberta Queer Calendar Project.
On Saturday at the gallery, you can get a first glimpse of Tiger’s Hearts Collective at work: an adaptation and staged reading of Shakespeare’s immensely challenging Troilus and Cressida by an all-female-identifying company. It’s the brainchild of Danielle LaRose of Malachite Theatre.
New this year is musical programming at Station on Jasper downtown. Check out skirtsafire.com for a complete schedule of events. Available till Thursday are festival passes.
The Blue Hour
Written by: Michele Vance Hehir
Directed by: Annette Loiselle
Starring: Ian Leung, Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Robert Benz, Isaac Andrew, Bonnie Ings, Elinor Holt
Where: TransAlta Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.), Alberta Avenue Community League, The Carrot (9351 118 Ave.), Nina Haggerty Gallery (9225 118 Ave.), Station on Jasper (10524 Jasper Ave.), Bedouin Beats (11805 94 St.), St. Faith’s Church (11725 93 St.), Otto Food and Drink (11405 95 St.), The Nook Cafe (10153 97 St.).
Running: Thursday through March 8