Stage Door Review

Kroehler Girls

Saturday, September 11, 2021

✭✭

by Severn Thompson and the cast, directed by Severn Thompson

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

September 8-26, 2021

“Kroehler Girls, Kroehler Girls, win, win, win!”

Here For Now Theatre has hit it out of the park with Kroehler Girls, the last show of its 2021 season. The show is about the comeback of the women’s softball team of Stratford’s own Kroehler furniture factory in 1953. (“Kroehler” rhymes with “trailer”.) Women who made furniture by day, played softball after work and were so good they reached the regional championships. After a dismal season in 1952, 1953 is when they hope to regroup, recharge and regain their title.

With Kroehler Girls director Severn Thompson is following in the footsteps of her father Paul Thompson, who at Factory Theatre pioneered techniques of collective creation where actors, playwrights and directors would collaborate on the creation of a play through field research and acting improvisations. The research in this case was conducted by Severn Thompson and others in the archives of the Stratford Perth Museum.

Few people will know that in the first half of the twentieth century, Stratford was Canada’s largest centre of furniture production. It employed about a quarter of the city’s workforce, the second largest industry after the railway. One of the several factories was the Stratford (later Kindel) Bed Company, known after 1920 as Kroehler Manufacturing Company, located at 552 Ontario Street at Romeo Street, until the company was liquidated in 1981 and the building was demolished. The place were the factory was is now occupied by the Arden Park Hotel. The place where the women played ball, Kroehler Field, was right where The Bruce Hotel has set up the marquee under which the play is performed.

There is no doubt that there is an indescribable thrill in gathering on the very spot where scenes of local history are brought to life. Paul Thompson’s techniques of making theatre of local history include narration, dialogue, mime and song as evidenced in a play like Thompson and Rick Salutin’s 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt (1973) revived at the Shaw Festival in 2017. Severn Thompson and her cast use the same mixture of techniques in Kroehler Girls to great effect.

Thompson frames the story with the incident of Honey (Kelly McIntosh), an elderly woman, who in visiting Stratford has wandered off to the site where Kroehler Field used to be. The place triggers memories of the past including conversations she had with her friend Georgie (Stacy Smith). Her reveries are cut short when her son (Andy Pogson) finds her, but the play segues from the present back to 1953 and the glory days of the softball team of which she was a part.

In 1953 the young Honey (also McIntosh) has to be persuaded to play ball again. She feels it was her fault the team lost the championships. Her mother (also Smith) comforts her but a cloud hangs over the family. Honey’s brother wanted to be a major league baseball player but he never came back from World War II. Honey feels she’s betrayed his memory.

Luckily, the coach (also Pogson) convinces Honey that the whole team will be starting over and Honey can start over with them. One of the new girls is Georgie, a super-fast pitcher, and she and Honey soon become friends.

In just one hour we follow the Kroehler Girls’ wins and losses until they come up to their big game against Toronto with the final game on Kroehler Field. The sports reporter for the Beacon-Herald (also Pogson) gives us the history of the team plus exciting play-by-play accounts of their games. We see Georgie, initially an outsider, become accepted by the team. We see Honey overcome her fears and regain her enthusiasm only to encounter her fears again. We see teams chants, sports scouts, enemy players and so much action on and off the field it’s impossible not to get caught up in the many sources of the Kroehler Girls’ need to win.

What makes Kroehler Girls so exciting is that it is the most theatrical show to play in Stratford this summer, no matter at which festival, this or the big one. Just Smith and McIntosh play all nine members of the team, shifting instantly from one character to another with just a switch of cap position or change in posture or diction. Smith has a number of virtuoso scenes in which she has dialogues with herself as both Georgie and the more established player Doll, instantly transforming from one to the other. McIntosh could hardly be more different in playing the older Honey, lost, frail but still vital, to the young Honey, battling with her own demons to succeed, to the flirty Wanda, an older girl on the team, who won’t let baseball interfere with her sex appeal.

Andy Pogson is hilarious in his two main roles as the corny, old-time news reporter who covers small town sports as if they were major league events and as the frazzled coach who uses prayer to calm himself and the team but who can’t control his temper when a girl screws up a play. Pogson also has a very funny sequence when he plays three out-of-province girls who happen to have been recruited by London when the Kroehler girls have a big game against them. In a fun dig at the Stratford Festival, which also began in 1953, Pogson plays a naive actor who is attracted to Georgie. He foolishly puffs up his importance in Richard III, but Georgie knows Shakespeare best as a village twelve kilometres east of Stratford.

To one side of the stage is the young, confident, multitalented performer MadeNell, daughter of actor Cedric Smith, who seems to symbolize the idealistic little girls all the factory workers once were (and still are) as well as all the little girls who were inspired by the Kroehler Girls’ success. As well, MadeNell sings songs to mark intervals in the action and leads the audience in Kroehler Girls cheers and baseball songs.

Vitally important to the show is percussionist Graham Hargrove. He plays the metallophone for background accompaniment, especially to the news reporter’s spiels, but also serves as a live foley artist using drums, wooden sticks and a variety of whistles to signal incoming balls, strikes and misses.

It is huge delight to see a ball game as directed by Thompson played on the tiny stage at the Here For Now Theatre marquee. When the Kroehler Girls are practicing we see the pitcher stage right and the batter and catcher stage left. The pitcher mimes a throw and with a whizz or whoosh from Hargrove the ball zooms past the batter, or with a clack of sticks, connects, and the batter steps off the stage to run to first base. When the Kroehler Girls are in a game, each stands alone mid-stage ready to meet their fate. The synchronization of Hargrove’s sound with the mimed movement of the actors is impeccable. Stylized as it is, the action is so captivating that the whole audience cheers spontaneously when the Kroehler Girls score a run.

At the end of the show you feel exhilarated not just by the story but by the sheer ingenuity with which it has been presented. Who needs elaborate sets and costumes? All you need is inventive direction, intelligent actors, a prop or two and a good story to tell. In a minimalist staging, mime and gesture are as important as dialogue, and involve us imaginatively in a way that complex productions do not. In Kroehler Girls we feel that the performers are channelling Stratford’s history through their actions directly to us. And to feel that connection so strongly is electrifying.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Marg Syms (née Pogson) who played third base on the Kroehler Girls soft and fastball teams, late ’40s through early ’50s, standing with her nephew Andy Pogson at the Arden Park Hotel in front of an aerial photo of the Kroehler Factory, © 2020; Kelly McIntosh and Stacy Smith, © 2021 Here For Now Theatre. The Kroehler Girls with coach and batboy, c.1953, Stratford Perth Museum.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.