Miss Caledonia- Lunchbox Theatre, Calgary

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Jamie Konchak and Aleksandra Danicic in Miss Caledonia, Photo by Benjamin Laird

When we think of “theatre”, many of us picture a cavernous stage inhabited by an elaborate set dazzled with lights. A sumptuous orchestra plays as the place begins to buzz with larger-than-life characters wearing glittering costumes. But sometimes, in a little black box theatre with your lunch on your lap, a very special story can take us on a journey richer than the Ziegfeld Follies with nothing but a chair, a fiddle, and a little imagination.

Lunchbox theatre’s latest show may be “bare-bones”,  but Miss Caledonia extends her hand and with a gloriously infectious smile, she invites us into her technicolor world- like suddenly finding yourself sat beside Judy Garland on the trolly in Meet Me in St. Louis, or watching the sun rise from Laurey’s farmhouse porch in Oklahoma.

Peggy Ann Douglas (our would-be Miss Caledonia) dreams of making it big as a movie star and figures her heroine Debbie Reynolds found the perfect way to do it; win the local beauty pageant, get a modelling contract and get scouted for the silver screen. Not so easy if you’re working the farm with your mum and dad out in 1950’s rural Ontario, but Peggy’s enthusiasm and pure joy is impossible to extinguish. She’s not necessarily a cock-eyed optimist, but her determination to live the life of her dreams is fuelled by unflappable positivity and gumption, plus a little help from her mum.

Mother-Daughter relationships run deep in this production and Melody Johnson’s script is its beating heart. Writing a play about your mother’s girlhood dreams could easily have been a sentimental sinkhole, but Johnson’s story dances joyfully into existsance with the perfect balance of heart, homage and humour.

Perhaps just as challenging is the job of directing such a treasured story. It would be all too easy to stifle the production, but Karen Johnson-Diamond has shown ultimate confidence in the material and the performers. She gently guides the story along, allowing it to breathe and come alive, showing deep personal connection to the soul of the piece.

Johnson-Diamond’s touch is particularly subtle in the relationship between our heroine and the only other performer, fiddle player Aleksandra Danicic. Danicic’s playing is beautifully sensitive to the movement of the story, but it is her attentiveness as an on stage presence which provides essential support for Jamie Konchak’s young Peggy Ann. Although it does bring to mind the old-time pianists who would have played along in the theatres while silent film stars graced the screen, her fiddle-playing is not just accompaniment. She is a sunrise and a rooster crowing, a dirt road after the rain, a confidante, a partner in crime, a shoulder to cry on, and all these sweet moments come with a simple look shared between the two performers. Not only does Danicic transport us to the place of the story, but she is also sister-like, and so is her music.

Konchak bewitches as the infectiously charming Peggy Ann Douglas. In the first five minutes, she takes time to connect with each audience member. Her big sparkling eyes lock with yours and instantly you’re taken to wherever she wants to show you next, and who she wants you to meet. Konchak’s Peggy Ann is silly, warm and clever, and every character she shares with us is thoughtfully drawn. Not a single personality is short-changed by cheap caricatures. Each is exquisitely detailed and specific, from the love-sick milk truck driver to the big city hotel clerk to the Joan Collins-esque modelling class instructor. Konchak skillfully brings dozens of characters to life, and none so lovingly as Peggy Ann’s mother. The warmth between mother and daughter is hearty and wholesome without being cliché. They work together to make the best out of a farm life that can be tough (especially without indoor plumbing!) and their investment in each other’s happiness is shown in some truly touching moments.

It’s quaint to look back on the worlds of our mothers and grandmothers, but this kind of nostalgia also reminds us of the timeless support that women must remember to give each other as we work towards our dreams. The reality of life as a woman in Peggy Ann’s day is perfectly brought into perspective as the Miss Caledonia Pageant goes into the question round. Peggy Ann’s best friend is asked, “Which historical figure do you think the most of”? She replies with a story about the Person’s Case, when “The Famous Five” women from Alberta took the Supreme Court to task over whether women were considered “Persons”. In 1928, it was ruled that they were not.

Within Peggy Ann’s life time, women’s rights advanced considerably. Even the Miss Caledonia Pageant was beginning to look at personality and talent rather than just perfect measurements, stacking ups hands on girls’ legs like hands on a Clydesdale. These mother/daughter stories are not just sweet domestic scrap books, but reflect our collective story as women, generation helping generation, sharing wisdom and showing support for one another’s dreams, whatever they may be.

Following public performances in Calgary, Miss Caledonia will tour to senior’s facilities as part of the Lunchbox To Go program. Connecting the theatre with those women who lived like Peggy Ann and her mother is an incredible initiative from Lunchbox. Not only does the “bare-bones” approach serve this play well, it also allows the story to reach as many audiences as possible, proving that the creative team on this project has a collective heart of gold, just like Peggy Ann, and every aspect of this stellar project delights and fortifies.

Miss Caledonia plays at the Lunchbox Theatre from now until April 21st. Tickets and info at www.lunchboxtheatre.com

 

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