Had I seen The Bush-Ladies: In Their Own Words when I first studied Canadian history in high school, would I have responded to the country's story more than I did? I hope that the answer would have been positive, because while watching this collage/docudrama, based on the writings of Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill, Anne Langton and Anne Jameson, I could think only of how personalized the events of these women's lives spiked my appreciation for their endurance and the country's forbidding nature.
Adapted and directed by Molly Thom, the play weaves the lives of these women through their own writings. Journals and letters become outpourings of grief, despair and exultation. Eventually, using story theatre as their technique, the women speak to one another through their written records. Occasionally, they become characters in each other's stories, but they do this without displaying any theatrical self-consciousness.
The first act focuses on the estrangement resulting from leaving one world for another. Women who had known lives of comfort find themselves struggling to deal with daily hardships, a brutal terrain and penetrating loneliness. In this land of stark landscapes, disease and cold chill the bones and test the soul. The second act does not do an about-face, but here we come to know the quartet as they come to know themselves. The revelation of this theatre piece is that four separate voices emerge as the personalities themselves take root in new soils.
Thom elects a simple, straight-ahead presentation, which is enhanced by the effective backdrop designed by Mary Spyrakis. The musical score, composed by Lawrence Beckwith, evokes mood, time and spirit in a perfect balance with the quiet readings of the four actors. The play's long gestation -- it began its life in 1967 and its current theatrical shape in 1997 -- demonstrates what is possible with careful thought and a passionate connection between ideas and execution.
All of the women who portray the pioneering ladies work without the effort showing. They speak in words and syntax that are foreign to our ear, but they resist any temptation to affect a style that would distance the stories. In their period costumes, bonnets framing faces, they attack their histories with the kind of energy that pulls us to them without hesitation. (None should be singled out from the group, but Mary Ann MacDonald sings Welcome, Welcome, Little Bark with an understated urgency enough to break your heart.)
Bush-Ladies has toured schools in a 50-minute version. I would like to see what of the current play is retained for the touring show, but I would be far more interested in watching the students as they come face-to-face with living, breathing representations of a past that is, in part, responsible for our present.
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