by Velika Maxam
Sisters, by Wendy Lill, is a brilliantly written stage piece, whose historical content and truth could not be any more relevant to our cultural consciousness today, as dialogue continues regarding the maltreatment of our First Nations people through the residential school system. ‘Sisters’ brings us closer to an understanding of our past by illuminating this story from the perspective of three nuns at a fictitious Nova Scotia government-sponsored religious school, where a decades-old colonial practise occurred: culturally assimilating Indigenous children with brute force. Borelians Community Theatre of Port Perry, who has been producing award-winning theatre since 1971, in the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation territory, has taken on the challenge of this weighty piece, and done so respectfully, honestly, and powerfully.
The story follows juvenescent Mary (Justine Dickie) through the more senior Sister Mary’s (Carolyn Goff), flashbacks, who with the most pious of intentions joins the nunnery and finds herself as a residential schoolteacher because, as she says, “I went there to find love”. One character, two actresses, and both juxtaposed on stage simultaneously throughout, cleverly exposing the evolution of the human spirit from innocence to maleficence. The casting in Sisters is spot on, as the two bear resemblance, only theatrically aged, which contributes to the believability that we are actually looking at the same woman through memory, only decades apart. Carolyn Goff as Sister Mary, gives her role the hardened, confused, troubled, pained, tormented, emotional constitution necessary to the plot of a nun’s innocence broken by a system, and her own misguided spirituality, and is central to demonstrating her path from innocent to enraged disciplinarian, which Carolyn does with the utmost acumen.
Mary’s journey is accompanied by the more superior Sister Gabriel (Annette Stokes) and Mother Agnes (Ruth Smith), who all three—in an interesting triumvirate and as comrade in arms—traverse the flawed residential school system with steadfast sanctimonious devotion to self discipline, self control on a mission for the higher good but with traumatic results, and at the cost of the childhoods of thousands of Indigenous children. Perhaps each of the three nuns is representative of the id, ego, and superego in the human psyche, and if so, the playwright’s literary use of the concept of the tripartite works brilliantly here, that in spite of their varied and opposed musings of life at the school and their purpose, each together become one psyche that manifests in the nightmares of the First Nations children they shepherd.
Justine Dickie (young Mary) masters the art of conveying a young girl’s natural joy for hope, alongside amour Louis (Evan Descary). Together they ground us to the notion of the purity of youth, with anticipation for the betterment of mankind throughout. Annette Stokes (Sister Gabriel), never loses her energy and characterization while displaying human doubt and occasional loss of faith in the mission bestowed upon her at the school, often endearing us to her, making us hope her conscience will be the children’s salvation. Ruth Smith, as Mother Agnes, is powerful, steadfast, and never once makes us think she wasn’t a woman of that age, that time, and in that dreadful role in history. Chris Gaudet as Stein the lawyer, is young and fresh, and does an incredible job displaying the emotions of his own overlooked and neglected childhood, where he bears witness to his own victimization. Other than his story, and the occasional cries of injustice by Sister Gabriel, the voice of children is barely audible in this story, and it makes for a powerful effect because by the end of this play you want to scream out for them.
Director Helen Coughlin is to be commended for an extremely well-staged piece, where the use of creativity to convey the play’s message is excellent. We move through this story from young Mary’s rustic home, to a chapel, the school, and a prison cell, crossing back and forth as the story unfolds, all done with simple yet impeccable set design. We get such a true flavor of each little world—with the astute use of lighting and sound, moving from scene to scene, as though we are travellers in this tale— that you can almost smell the incense in the church, the fresh breeze outside Mary’s home, or the dryness of the dust in the prison. Our senses are piqued as though we are living this ourselves, fully immersed and at the very heart of this difficult story.
The Borelians did not for a moment stray from the mark or cheat on an idea, and made full use of the stage at Town Hall 1873, both on and off with a simple yet powerful set design to help us understand the agony of this story, that lives on painfully in our First Nations people. Since we are dealing with real agony and trauma with genuine historical consequence, there is no room for error in this piece, and the Borelians mustered up all their talent for this one, allowing us to better understand our own Canadian history and failings. This is a show that is never dull and never lacks originality. Truthfully the Borelians have demonstrated what honest true local theatre and art is all about. This is a refreshing and educational piece artful with moving subject matter that isn’t often showcased in local theatre. It’s a must see quite frankly for Canadians.
‘Sisters’ continues from February 22, 23 and 24, 2018 with tickets and further information available on their website.