Review: Miss Caledonia (Tarragon Theatre/Melody A. Johnson)

Powerful simplicity make Miss Caledonia, playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, a prime example of the scope and spirit of Canadian theatre

At the end of Miss Caledonia I stood up, stretched a little, looked around, and noticed something highly unusual.

There, in the tiny little Extra Space of the Tarragon Theatre, six different people were crying: weeping tears of catharsis, and joy, and simple contentment.

This is not a weepy sort of play. Nobody dies of consumption, nobody is killed in a futile war, and there are no orphans hawking matches. In fact, the play is exactly what it says on the label: Melody A. Johnson (accompanied by fiddler Alison Porter) provides a straightforward, linear account of the time her mother was crowned Pageant Queen at the Caledonia County Fair.

How do you take that premise and make adults weep? It’s simpler than you think.

Johnson’s characters are often distasteful, standoffish and downright nasty. These aren’t your typical cardboard farm-country stereotypes, these are fully-developed, fully-realized human beings, and the show is unquestionably stronger for it. Johnson also uses shifting perspectives to tremendous effect: sometimes we view these characters through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old girl, desperately searching for magic and escapism; sometimes, through the eyes of an old woman reminiscing upon younger days. This adds considerable depth and heft to the characterization, and an element of freshness to the play as a whole.

And we feel for these characters, especially for the two women at the core of the story: Johnson’s mother and grandmother. It is clear that Johnson truly loves and wants to do right by these women, and her fondness for them is entirely contagious. These characters are so compelling, and Johnson’s acting so enthralling, that we aren’t merely rooting for these women. We share their joy, their sadness, their setbacks and their triumphs.

That’s the key.

Johnson could tell us a plain old story about the time mom won a pageant sash. She’s an excellent performer and a talented writer, and she could tour on such a production for months. Welcome to the arts in Canada: if you’ll sleep in a van and tell a story about rural life, we’ll keep you in Canada Council grants ’til the cows come home.

But she goes further. She climbs higher. She challenges her audience by indulging and confounding our expectations. She doesn’t want us to merely pay attention or feel for her characters: she wants us to share in her remembrance, to understand the respect and love she has for her relatives, to take some part in their journey.

That’s what this play’s really about.

That’s why people wept at the end.

That’s why this story—mundane as it is on the surface—is so important.

And that’s why this show deserves to be seen.

One of the best things I’ve seen on a Toronto stage. If you don’t catch it, you’re missing out.

 

 

Details:

  • Miss Caledonia is playing from October 24 – November 22, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Avenue.
  • Shows run Tuesday – Saturday at 8:00 PM., weekend matinees at 2:00 PM.
  • Tickets are $48, seniors $38, students $27. Tickets are available online, in person at the Tarragon Theatre, or by calling 416-531-1827.
  • Half the run is already sold out: book now!

 

Photograph of Melody A. Johnson by Nir Bareket.