Joan MacLeod’s new coming-of-age drama Gracie running in the Arts Commons Martha Cohen Theatre until March 18 boasts a remarkable performance in a remarkable play.
This world première, a co-production between Victoria’s Belfry Theatre and Alberta Theatre Projects, is set in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints community of Bountiful, in British Columbia.
It is the story of Gracie (Lili Beaudoin), a young girl born in a similar commune in Utah whose mother, brother and two older sisters move to B.C. when their mother is betrothed to Mr. Shelby, an elder in Bountiful.
What only Gracie’s mother knows is that the oldest sister Celeste has also been chosen to marry Shelby’s oldest son, quite an honour considering she will be a first wife when Gracie’s mother is Shelby’s 18th wife.
Gracie’s second sister is not so lucky. She is chosen to marry Shelby’s brother, a man old enough to be her grandfather.
The remarkable thing about MacLeod’s play is the restraint she uses to tell five years of Gracie’s life.
When we meet her, Gracie is eight years old. When the play ends she is on the cusp of 16 and definitely of marrying age.
The abhorrent lifestyle of this breakaway sect portrayed in the play is the stuff of nightmares.
Children end up bearing children from the time they are 16 mostly fathered by much older men with multiple wives. Boys are used for cheap labour on the communes or driven out of the sect because there are no possible mates for them.
Many of them revert to alcohol, drugs and illicit sex with elders’ wives and daughters.
Women are forced to bear as many children as they are physically capable because it is believed the more children a man fathers on earth the higher his position in heaven will be which explains why young girls are so prized for these old men.
The list of obscenities goes on, yet MacLeod doesn’t put Gracie on a soap box decrying this lifestyle and that would have been so very wrong.
Gracie was raised by the sect and this is the only lifestyle she knows.
She gets glimpses of the hardships of women when her mother almost dies from her second pregnancy by Shelby yet is forced to become pregnant with a third child shortly afterwards
She sees how unhappy Celeste is with her young temperamental husband and two children and how resigned her other sister is in her marriage to Shelby’s brother.
Most of all Gracie sees what being an outcast does to her brother Billy who really is one of the most interesting characters in MacLeod’s play.
It’s Billy who sees how unjust this whole extreme patriarchal society is to girls, women and boys and his concern for little Gracie is one of the most heartbreaking elements in the play.
As insightful and subtle as MacLeod’s writing may be, it takes an actor as dynamic as Beaudoin to make those words and thoughts fly off the paper and explode on stage.
Explode she does, but it is a long, carefully modulated fuse that Beaudoin lights.
At first, Beaudoin’s Gracie is a precocious child who has the temerity to ask Mr. Shelby for a bicycle the moment he comes to greet the new family at the gates of the compound and she talks back to everyone from her mother and sisters to the Raging Grannies who regularly picket outside the compound.
This child is also kind to her new baby brother and continues to be his guardian and takes a motherly stance with Celeste’s children.
She also has the strength and insight to fend off advances from the transient boys on the commune.
The script doesn’t have to tell us when Gracie becomes 15. It’s all in Beaudoin’s physical language and her delivery.
Gracie is an adolescent on the verge of womanhood and that means she’s ready to become someone’s wife, and what’s compelling both in MacLeod’s script and Beaudoin’s performance is how Gracie deals with the impending inevitable.
Beaudoin received a thunderous standing ovation the night I saw Gracie and justly so.
Her performance is captivating.
She makes us care what happens to this child/woman and to Gracie’s mother, sisters and, especially her brother Billy.
Catherine Hahn has given director Vanessa Porteous a multi-level set which Porteous and Beaudoin turn into numerous specific locations just by the way they are used.
The backdrop is like painted abstract mountains that seem to change shape and dimension through Narda McCarroll’s lighting.
It really is remarkable how much we learn about this lifestyle without ever feeling we’re in a classroom or at some rally.
Gracie, both the character and the play, are so accessible that we feel haunted by what we glimpse in these 90 minutes together.