The Blue Hour: nobody writes ‘prairie plays’ like it these days. Some thoughts on the SkirtsAfire premiere

Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Isaac Andrew in The Blue Hour, SkirtsAfire Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Just in the nick of time I finally got a chance on the weekend to catch The Blue Hour

Named for the magical moment of ambiguity when light shades into darkness, Michele Vance Hehir’s new play was the centrepiece of this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival, the annual celebration of the work of female artists, which ended Sunday.

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It’s an unusual piece in every way. For one thing, no one writes this kind of kind of spacious, full-bodied two-act prairie play any more. I say “prairie” because there’s a long tradition in these parts of plays that have the same expansive reverb as the landscape. Cloistered small-town characters have tantalizing glimpses, or ecstatic long-shots, of unapproachable horizons. Time doesn’t have an urban momentum to it; the past and the future merge into a perpetual present.

Under flat, un-flamboyant surfaces extending into the distance, dark secrets lie buried, but not deep enough to stay that way. In the prairies you get lulled into a false sense of security, because you can see tragedy, like storms and grain elevators, coming miles away.

Vance Hehir’s plays make you think like that. The Blue Hour is the third of her Roseglen plays, a trilogy that takes us, in contrasting forms, to that fictional prairie town at different moments in its history. Ruination (3 short stories) is an artful construction of three interlocking monologues from which a mystery gathers during Depression era Roseglen. One Polaroid visits two aging sisters in Roseglen, in its last gasps in 1973. In The Blue Hour, a (possibly) final instalment, it’s 1947. And the post-war narrative of hope and new starts is as foreign to Roseglen as the Eiffel Tower and people who speak French.

It’s a harsh town in a harsh landscape. And it’s steeped in death, loss, and accommodation to grief and disappointment. In short, it’s perfect soil for proscriptive lake-of-fire type fundamentalism. 

Recent arrivals 15-year-old Bonnie (Helen Belay) and her kid brother  Jonas (Isaac Andrew) are, in different ways, chafing at the bit under the distracted parenting of their single mother (Nicole St. Martin), struggling to put food on the table. Bonnie, circumscribed by punishing limitations of church and place, dreams of escape, of taking her musical gifts out into the big wide world; Jonas has left childhood behind to be the family breadwinner, a junior prairie entrepreneur who barters the fish he catches for sugar and flour.

Behind other doors in town are other stories, and The Blue Hour takes its time, over two acts, to letting their secrets get aired. The new pastor (Ian Leung) and his young wife (Bonnie Ings) have a baby in progress after many miscarriages she can’t help interpreting as God’s punishment for “fornication” (that’s a word they use in Roseglen). The affable mayor (Robert Benz) is up against his purse-lipped church-y wife (Elinor Holt). Marriages are straining at the seams, resentments are festering, prayers are not getting answered, gossip is getting hatched and overheard on the party line. And other people’s sins are being enumerated (the list of the good lord’s do-not’s always comes with fiery or-else’s).

For a small town, it’s a high-traffic intersection of subplots, dreams of the future and mistakes of the past. And a collision between right and wrong, free will and inherited guilt, has a kind of inevitability. Tragedy is coming. And the “villain,” a man of the cloth with flaws, has plenty of time, and a lot of words, at his disposal, to regret his bad choices.    

Annette Loiselle, the artistic director of SkirtsAfire, makes her directing debut with the production. She sets it in motion with a first-rate cast and design. Megan Koshka’s wood-slatted set lets slivers of light through, as the days roll into evenings. T. Erin Gruber’s atmospheric lighting is a character in itself.

The actors are excellent. Benz, for one, knows how prairie minimalism works. He can do more with an uninflected pause, a moment of stillness, a reassessing glance, than many actors can do with a long speech. And the play gives him a chance to work with all of the above.

The Blue Hour is not quite so judicious with other characters, though; it occasionally does seem overwritten instead of leisurely. Angst from the guilty pastor, for example, gets long speeches to go with it — they seem especially overlong given the actorly skills and charisma (the excellent Leung) available. Act I seems to end twice. 

Perhaps a trim is in order for subsequent productions of The Blue Hour. Especially since its accomplished playwright savours mysteries and nuances in her characters, and a lyrical sense of the thorny small-town prairie inheritance in her writing. It’s time for the mysteries and nuances of acting to get more credit.

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