The tragedy of eugenics
Saturday, Jul 05, 2014 06:00 am
“Don’t expect to smile too much,” said the box office attendant as I walked into Walterdale Theatre to see Jennie’s Story.
She was right. The two-act play opened Wednesday night and it’s a heartbreaker, a tragedy that should never have happened.
Playwright Betty Lambert refused to let an embarrassing part of Alberta history be quietly swept under the rug. In Jennie’s Story she spears the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta that existed from 1928 to 1972.
It was a political act, an atrocity that permitted a panel to sterilize the “feeble-minded,” the “evil,” or the “promiscuous.” The definitions were not scientific or medical, yet in many instances, people were sterilized without their knowledge or consent.
In the play’s backstory, the sweet, impressionable 16-year-old Jennie is sent to clean house for the village priest. He seduces her repeatedly. Out of shame and guilt for his actions, he takes her to Ponoka Hospital telling authorities she is promiscuous.
Jennie cannot leave without being sterilized. He obtains a signed consent form from her mother and Jennie is told her appendix is being removed.
As the play opens Jennie has married Harry McGrane, a farmer who relishes the nature’s open spaces and raising crops. For one year the happily married couple tries to conceive without luck.
Jennie writes to the physician who performed the appendix operation. During their brief meeting, she discovers the operation was in fact sterilization. Feeling helpless she unleashes a torrent of emotions against those she trusted and who betrayed her.
No longer the woman she thought she was, Jennie spirals quickly into a mental breakdown. Much like a Greek tragedy, there is only one possible outcome for all involved. But I don’t intend to provide a spoiler.
Lambert has created a heightened emotional plot with strong characters, bold language and powerful social criticism. While sterilization is no longer an issue in Canada, Lambert provokes us into questioning how political figures or persons in authority can commit atrocities against their own people in the name of political or social expediency.
And this is an issue that infiltrates every corner of the globe. This is another case where Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” completely applies.
But it is the actors who give this script a beating heart – in large part due to powerful stage chemistry. Heather Brooke as the lively, much-in-love Jenny McGrane, plows a vortex of emotions into her character. Brooke’s journey is emotionally exhausting, yet it gives Jennie a heightened realism.
Ryan Beck’s Harry McGrane is a salt-of-the-earth farmer, a good husband who loves to spoil his wife and enjoys ribbing guests with his Irish humour. But underneath the mellow banter Harry has a secret and Beck gives Harry just enough reticence to pique the curiosity.
John Trethart plays the venal Father Edward Fabrizeau, a coward who refuses to accept the consequences of his actions. As a result, parishioners treat him like a bottom feeder.
Trethart infuses just the right intensity to Father “Eddie.” He takes his character to the edge between lowlife and caricature yet always maintains an aura of believability.
The play is not a complete tragedy and Syrell Wilson as Edna Delevault, Jennie’s mother, is the comic relief. Wilson nails the role of a 1930s rural widow and her comedic timing is natural and seamless.
And lastly there is Molly MacKinnon, as Molly Dorval, a pregnant teenager who is part of the hired help. Molly is a ray of sunshine, a hint of innocence floating through a corrupt world and she provides the jolt of optimism so desperately needed.
Director Alex Hawkins, aided by Walterdale’s long rehearsal process, has navigated his actors through the characters’ complex relationships and created a world that is difficult to forget.
And kudos to master set designer Joan Heys Hawkins for creating a realistic set with an old-fashioned wood stove, water pump and kerosene lamp. Even single light bulbs strung from a wobbly string have a farm-like look.
From the Greeks down to Shakespeare down to the more contemporary Game of Thrones, playwrights continue to caution that suppressed secrets and lies lead to a poisoned system capable of destroying our rights. And it’s up to us to question the rules and if necessary, fan the flames of discontent.