Stage Door Review

Post Alice

Saturday, August 7, 2021

✭✭

by Taylor Marie Graham, directed by Fiona Mongillo

Here For Now Theatre, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 27-August 15, 2021

“Where do our lost girls go?”

Taylor Marie Graham’s new play Post Alice, now receiving its world premiere at Here For Now Theatre’s 2021 New Works Festival, is one of the most exciting new Canadian plays I’ve seen for some time. Graham begins with an unusual premise and then develops it in unanticipated ways all the while punctuating the action with a variety of theatrical techniques one would not expect in an hour-long play. The result is a lyric, Chekhovian meditation on the loss of the past and the loss of the people we once  thought we were.

Graham’s premise is that four women from different stories by 2013 Canadian Nobel laureate Alice Munro all knew each other in high school in Goderich, a small town on Lake Huron an hour northwest from Stratford. They all shared a wild night on their graduation from high school in 1995, but a tragic event has overshadowed the pleasure of that event ever since.

The first young woman we meet is Belle (Siobhan O’Malley), from Munro’s story “Train” of 2012 who seems to be carving a wooden leg. Soon she is joined by Oneida (Heather Marie Annis) from the story “Pride” (2011). She is a woman, who, frustrated by her father’s silence, has decided to investigate her heritage on her own. In an unusual entrance likely not seen since Shaw’s play Misalliance (1910), the aviatrix Edie (Aubree Erickson) from “How I Met My Husband” (1974) lands her plane on Belle’s farm. Her passenger is Wen (Ellen Denny), who is likely the unnamed narrator of “Gravel” (2011), the only short story by Munro with a lesbian theme. Graham portrays Wen as having had a crush on Oneida since high school. Only in the play does Oneida realize that she reciprocates those feelings.

All four characters exist in different time periods in their own stories. Belle’s story, for example, is set shortly after World War II. Graham keeps key elements of Belle’s story. She is orphaned in her teens when her writer father is hit by a train. A drifter named Jackson, notices her failing farm and stays long enough to put it in order and get it working again. He takes Belle to the hospital to have a lump removed from her leg. But he leaves as inexplicably as he arrived.

Graham has taken the four young women with the rudiments of their backstories and presents them all as having been 16 years old in 1995. Thus, Post Alice is emphatically not like the first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) in which various women from legend and history gather but all retain the historical peculiarities of their backgrounds. Graham’s Alice Munro girls may have their own stories, but unlike Churchill’s characters, they share a common past and present.

Except for Edie and Wen’s arrival, there is no conventional action. Graham has structured the play very much like a Chekhovian ensemble drama in which characters at leisure merely converse with each other. Gradually, we arrive at the topics that each woman has been avoiding but eventually must be revealed. Belle is indeed carving a wooden leg, one meant to replace her own right leg when it is removed due an osteosarcoma. Belle claims that her doctor has told her that amputating the leg will prevent the cancer (a word Belle avoids for a long time) from spreading. In fact, osteosarcoma is not easily curable in most cases. Thus Belle may be putting a brave face on a situation that is far deadlier than she lets on.

Since the “action” of the play consists entirely of the admission of secrets, it would be unfair to reveal any more. I will simply say that Oneida literally has what she thinks is the answer to a major feature of her past in the form of a letter that for most of the play she can’t bring herself to open.

As the play progresses it becomes clear that the four women not only have their own private secrets but as a group share an experience that has haunted them since 1995 and has never yet been exorcised. For this event Graham draws on the real history of Goderich of the period.

On May 31, 1995, which Graham imagines as the four women’s graduation day, Mistie Murray (born 1978) went missing. She was presumed drowned in Lake Huron but her body was never found. Police at the time viewed Mistie’s adoptive father as the prime suspect, but they never produced any convincing evidence to link him to her disappearance. The four women are especially interested in the theory that Mistie planned her own disappearance and they note that police never gave credence to any of the several sightings of a teenager matching Mistie’s distinctive appearance after her disappearance from Goderich.

The four women drunkenly attempt a séance to communicate with Mistie which, unsurprisingly ends in failure. What is so masterful about Graham’s play is how in only an hour she uses the simple reunion of four friends to open up a contemplation of enormous themes. What links the four women’s own stories with Mistie’s are the themes of death and identity. Mistie is simply the most extreme example of a person who has undergone a symbolic death to achieve a new identity – or, on a more sublime level – has undergone a real death to achieve her ultimate identity.

Each of the four friends has had or will have her identity shattered and rebuilt. But the nagging question each feels is whether they have really been transformed by this shattering experience of have they merely reconstructed their old lives. Mistie represents a mystery to them (that pun is in the text) and her possible death as 16 makes each of them, a survivor, question what she has done with her life.

The ensemble work achieved under Fiona Mongillo’s direction is superb. Though the speaking is as natural as ordinary conversation, the play almost seems to be a choral drama for four women. As Belle, O’Malley exudes an outer toughness, a kind of forced nonchalance, that suggests she fears much more than she wants the others to perceive. As Oneida, Annis, best known as Morro of the renowned clown duo Morro and Jasp, has exorcised everything of the clown and makes Oneida appear the most fragile of the four. The very way she has Oneida build up her hopes for the answer that lies in the letter yet fears to open it already suggests that she is afraid there is no answer.

Graham adds a layer of self-awareness to the play by giving Wen several long passages spoken to the audience as if they were a group of investors in a movie – a movie Wen wants to make about the very subject we are seeing – i.e. four women obsessed with the disappearance of Mistie Murray. Calm and forceful as Denny makes Wen’s speeches to the investors, she makes us feel that making the film is an urgent personal need rather than simply a good story for a mass audience. Erickson’s Edie would appear the most hardened, laid-back of the four, someone who makes fun of Belle and Oneida’s tendency to weepiness. yet, when it comes her turn to relate what happened that graduation night, Erickson makes us sense that Edie deeply regrets how hard that experience has made her.

As a director Mongillo not only guides the realistic passages with a natural ebb and flow, but she is equally adept at allowing the play to slip into its non-realistic passages and back. Several times character address the audience directly as if their thoughts are ones they feel their friends will never understand or even mock. In one imaginative section, the four women, acting as the 16-year-olds they once were, use shadow puppetry on the side of the marquee as their screen. They humorously depict various ways a teenager like Mistie could have been tempted into the water and drowned by a merman or monster. They stop because they see their humour has too strong an undercurrent of horror.

Twice the quartet break into a song, singing a cappella in lovely close harmony “Where do our lost girls go?” The first time they sing it they seem to be singing about the young girls like Mistie who have gone missing never to be found. The second time they sing it, they seem to be singing about themselves as well. This is a profound, beautifully crafted play. I hope it has a long life after the Festival.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Aubree Erickson as Edie, Heather Marie Annis as Oneida, Ellen Denny as Wen and Siobhan O’Malley as Belle. © Here For Now Theatre.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.