Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Peace River Country, by Maria Milisavljevic is a passionate play; kudos to Tarragon Artistic Director Richard Rose for choosing and directing a Canadian story worth telling and worth seeing. It is based on the actual story of Wiebo Ludvig (1941-2012), a Christian fundamentalist pastor and farmer in rural Alberta (his community, Trickle Creek, was about 450 km. north of Edmonton). In the 1990’s, he became an “eco-warrior,” fighting against oil and gas companies in Alberta and B.C. His major campaign was against the production of “sour gas,” with its high concentration of hydrogen sulfide’
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
He claimed the flares and leaks from the wells producing this gas poisoned the atmosphere, causing miscarriages and stillbirths for both animals and people. When political arguments failed, he turned to vandalism and attacks on the oil wells; he was accused of various acts of property destruction, and was once convicted and imprisoned for over a year.
The play centers on the question: when does protecting one’s beliefs and caring for life become violent – and is this violence justified? I have admired Milisavljevic’s previous plays at Tarragon: her translation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, (also about pollution, greed, and power) and her tightly-written Abyss, a suspense story of a missing girl set in Germany and Eastern Europe. Despite powerful scenes, Peace River Country did not quite come together for me. The dramatic structure uses flashbacks and, at times, speeches directly to the audience. These techniques can be effective, but here they tend to disrupt the narrative thread rather than enhance it.
The “Wiebo” character is called simply Dad, his wife Mom, while their two adult children are named Joe and Jemima. They interact against an amazing set, designed by Curtis Wehrfritz, which is a character in itself: a stand of about 20 uprooted young white birch trees, hanging from the ceiling, through which people move as the action unfolds. In a “clearing” in front of the trees is a wooden table, around which the family gathers to read the Bible as well as instructions on how to build a bomb. The trees seem to represent life and also life desecrated, in a literal and symbolic sense (the Garden of Eden comes to mind). Wehrfritz also designed the costumes, stylized versions of old-fashioned rural dress, and the video effects. Jason Hand’s lighting design, which moves from intimate to startling, and John Gzowski’s expressive, finely-nuanced sound design add to the emotional intensity.
Layne Coleman is a strong Dad, righteous as an Old Testament prophet, but I think his character is restricted by his religious fervour: he knows God’s reasons, which are always right, and believes he carries out God’s will. This does not give him much room for doubt, self-questioning, and movement, all part of drama. Even when Joe, played with sincerity and vigour by Benjamin Sutherland, agonizes over his role in the death of a teenage girl and confronts his father about the family’s beliefs, Dad’s convictions do not seem to falter. The playwright may want to show how faith can rule someone’s life, but I would like to see Dad question himself, the way Joe does – even if he returns to his certainty.
As Mom, Janet Laine Green has a beautifully haunting presence, enhanced by her magical singing voice. She is supportive of Dad and the family until she begins to break toward the end, in the only way she can – refusing to make supper and bake bread. This scene between her and her husband could have led to a revealing , intimate conversation, but the moment passes.
Sarah Sherman shows a range of moods as Jemima; most effective is her intense grief when her baby is stillborn . The loss of this child becomes an essential key to the story. Also moving are childhood moments with her father, when they talk to the soil and the wind and show their love of nature. Later, however, when she approaches the audience directly to talk about her sheep, I felt her character becomes a bit too sentimental. I also wondered why there is no mention of Jemima’s husband, as she has at least two other children beside the stillborn baby.
Despite my questions about the play, this is a relevant and provocative subject, important to explore in drama. Peace River Country is at Tarragon Extraspace through March 19.