Environmentalism and Faith feature in Peace River Country, now on stage in Toronto
Tarragon Theatre’s production of Peace River Country takes to the stage with the story of a rural Albertan family whose life is progressively destroyed by incoming gas-mining companies. The family fights back, the situation escalates, and the result is a suspenseful, well-crafted drama that resonates with today’s ongoing environmental struggles.
I loved Peace River Country; I thought the performances were superb, the production design thoughtful and creative, and the dialogue believable and well-written. But Peace River Country also has a very strong theme of Christianity, and I can imagine the centrality of this theme might be off-putting to some audience members.
My favourite moment, and my friend Laura’s too, was the early scene during which Dad (Layne Coleman) and a young Jemima (the versatile Sarah Sherman) listened to what the wind and the soil are saying (“The soil is very ticklish!”). The scene nicely captured the whimsy of childhood and the relationship between father and daughter.
The sound, lighting, and set design — featuring a backdrop of suspended, skeletal trees — were beautifully evocative. The actors’ performances were also a real highlight: Sarah Sherman as Jemima, Benjamin Sutherland as Joe, and Janet Laine Green as Mom all brought a variety of tangible emotions to their roles. I particularly enjoyed Joe’s scene of quiet anger. It was great to see all four characters develop over the course of the play.
As Dad, Layne Coleman gave a standout performance that showcased the strength and complexity of his faith, but also showed us an aging patriarch struggling to protect his family. He was both powerful and vulnerable, loving and harsh. The character’s peculiar charisma kept me invested in his relationships with the rest of the family and his struggle to defy a faceless enemy.
As my friend Laura pointed out, environmental protection and Christianity are inextricable in this play. She would have liked to focus on the former and reduce the latter, which I think is fair enough. Generally, we had different reactions to Peace River Country. She found the hymn-singing scenes somewhat difficult to relate to, for instance, while those were some of my favourite moments.
Overall, Peace River Country effectively gets inside the heads of a family struggling to defend themselves and their home from ruthless oil and gas corporations. The strength of this play is the way it creates sympathy for its characters, grounding their desperate actions in relatable and humanizing moments. Peace River Country‘s plot has the nightmarish inevitability of a great tragedy: no matter how extreme the family’s actions, I found myself thinking, what else could they do?
- Peace River Country is playing until March 19, 2017, at Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with a matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm; see schedule for details
- Tickets cost $55 for adults, $49 for seniors 65+, and $29 for students; see website for more pricing information
- Tickets are available online or through the box office at 416-531-1827
- This production uses smoke/haze and gunshot effects.
Photo of Layne Coleman, Benjamin Sutherland, Sarah Sherman, and Janet Laine Green by Cylla von Tiedemann