Review: Farther West (Soulpepper)

Farther West - Soulpepper

Soulpepper Theatre presents Farther West, a play about a woman’s journey for freedom, now playing at Toronto’s Young Centre

John Murrell’s  play, Farther West, the Soulpepper production which opened last night, was first performed in 1982. I always wonder if an older play will stand the test of time; Farther West does.

You certainly can’t help but notice the stage as you go to your seat – a woman and a man asleep together, both of them naked. That’s more 1982 than 2013, there doesn’t seem to be as much nudity and sex in plays now.  In the ’70s and early ’80s there was often nudity that felt gratuitous and a lot of gratuitous sex too.

Farther West is about a prostitute, the nudity and sex work within the context of the story.  It’s set in the 1870s and ’80s and is based on a true story. May Buchanan became a whore at 14. Her father’s advice? “Go farther west.” The play tells the story of May’s journey west in search of freedom from conventional morality and laws. It’s also the story of the two men who follow her.

May (played by Tara Nicodemo) is smart and capable. She wants to create a passionate life, free from judgment. She becomes a madam in Calgary and there is a lot of joy in the house. She and the other women sing and dance and seem to be happy with the lives they’ve chosen. The song they sing has a catchy chorus and I heard quite a few people humming and singing it under their breath at intermission.

It’s in Calgary that she meets Seward (played by Dan Lett) and Thomas Shepherd (played by Matthew MacFadzean) the men who are obsessed with her.

The first act is lively and moves along quickly. We learn that Seward thinks that May is damned because she is a whore and wants to save her soul and set her free by using her body.

Shepherd is in love with May. He adores her. He wants to marry her and settle down to free her from her life as a whore.

May leaves Calgary to escape them and the police and to go farther west, still searching for a place with “…no rules, no laws, no judges.”.

The second act was much darker, very tragic. No happy endings here.

The difference in mood between the two acts was fascinating. The costumes didn’t really change, it was the same set. Obviously the actors created some of the change but it was more than that; the atmosphere was completely different. I knew as soon as the second act started that it wasn’t going to be happy.

A lot of the mood in both acts was created by the lighting and the backdrop. From where I was sitting the backdrop looked like burnout velvet with an abstract pattern. Lighting specific parts of the backdrop created different settings; a whorehouse, a riverside picnic, mountains, and a city-scape. My friend and I both loved it.

It took me until about half way through the first act to realize that there was a water tank on the stage. The set was terrific, deceptively simple looking.

There was some very good stage fighting, a couple of bullet wounds that looked as if the person had really been shot, and some very good dying.

It really felt as if everyone involved in the production worked together to create a show where each element supported the other elements.

I enjoyed Farther West, but I enjoyed it with my head not with my heart. I don’t really know why. It’s a passionate play done passionately and there was a lot of energy but to me it felt as if the energy was on the stage and not between the audience and the actors.

Having said that I think it’s an excellent production and, as I said, I enjoyed it.


  • Farther West is playing at the Young Centre (50 Tankhouse Lane) until November 9
  • Performances Times: Monday through Saturday at 7.30, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 1.30
  • Ticket prices  range from $51.00 to $68.00 with student tickets at $32.00
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-866-8666 or at the box office

 Photo of Tara Nicodemo & William Webster in Father West by Cylla von Tiedemann