Peace Country is a huge accomplishment. I love its urgency, its complexity, its humour — and its weirdness.
Its weirdness — well, its eccentricity — lies in the play’s structure. Pedro Chamale’s new script is set in an area also known as Peace River Country, an aspen forest that stretches from northwestern Alberta to the Rocky Mountains in northeastern BC. Rather than being driven by plot, as most scripts are, Peace Country offers immersion in the relationships of a group of friends who grew up in the Peace and mostly still live there.
It’s set in the near future. A new political party, the British Columbia Environmental Alliance, has swept to power provincially and it’s working to limit the impacts of climate change. The party has canceled the pipeline project that helped to keep the friends’ town afloat. Canfor, the logging giant, has left. Oil-and-gas company Suncor may be next.
So Peace Country is about the tension between the urgent need for long-delayed environmental action and the economic impact of that action on resource-based communities that are too often ignored or demonized in the discussion.
In Chamale’s deft script, we see the group of five friends as kids riding their bikes around town, as teenagers getting drunk as skunks at a bonfire, and as adults negotiating politics. Julia, a recently elected member of the BCEA, is touring the North speaking to town councils about the path forward. Candice is preparing to shut down her muffin shop because she doesn’t have enough business to keep it open.
All the characters feel as real as dirt: nuanced and complicated. Julia’s big sister, Alicia, for instance, repeatedly threatens to break people in half if they cross her, but she’s also the compassionate rock of her family: when Julia was a teenage drunk, it was Alicia’s job to make sure Julia made it to school sober. Melissa — or Mel — is a lesbian who speaks movingly about how liberating it was for her to come out when she went to university in Vancouver and how irresistibly she was drawn back to the Peace, partly so she could make sure queer kids growing up in the region would never feel as isolated as she did.
Melissa is also hilariously comedic: all heart, pure reaction. With a straight face, she acknowledges that she’s always been a bit of an outsider because she didn’t move to the Peace until Grade Four and “It’s hard to make up for those early years.” When she mistakenly calls Guatemalan sisters Julia and Alicia Mexican, she stands her ground defiantly, before hightailing it in the face of Alicia’s glare.
Playing Melissa, Sara Vickruck delivers a perfect performance. Perfect. Everybody in this cast is rock-solid, confident, emotionally and stylistically resourceful. The other cast members, who all deserve our thanks, are Manuela Sosa (Julia), Sofía Rodríguez (Alicia), Kaitlin Yott (Candice), and Angus Yam (Greg). It’s worth mentioning that Candice is Indigenous and Angus’s mom and dad immigrated from China. So: northern town, real BC.
In the script, fires are still burning, despite the political progress. I appreciate this grown-up acknowledgement of how difficult surviving the climate crisis is going to be.
And the design team does a stellar job of evoking both the beauty of the region and the threat to its ongoing existence: on Kimira Reddy’s set, the expansive skies and shooting stars of Andie Lloyd’s video design, and the bone-shaking conjuring of a thunderstorm thanks to Jonathan Kim’s lighting and Cindy Kao’s sound are just a couple of examples.
Chamale, who also acted as the director, brought all this together: the casting, the sense of confidence the actors exude, the power of the design elements. And his attention to detail is phenomenal: just wait till you see the tight little dance moves he gives to a couple of actors who help Julia with an onstage costume change.
A couple of things could be tighter. Partly because the show isn’t plot-driven until Act 2, there’s not enough suspense to sustain us through the intermission, so the top of the second act feels a little saggy. And, although all five characters get monologues, only two of them — Melissa’s and Alicia’s — are really memorable at the moment. In my experience, Candice’s and Greg’s specifically aren’t. So these need to be tightened or approached from different angles.
That said, I applaud Heidi Taylor’s dramaturgy. Dramaturgs guide script development and Taylor has done an excellent job on this one.
Often, before a show starts, I say a little prayer for its success. This time, my prayer was amply rewarded.
PEACE COUNTRY Written and directed by Pedro Chamale. A rice & beans theatre production presented by the Firehall Arts Centre. On Saturday, October 14. At the Firehall Arts Centre until October 22. Tickets and information
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