Theatre Calgary season opener Tara Beagan’s Honour Beat an engaging drama of familial reconciliation

Theatre Calgary is calling 2018-19 their “season of new beginnings”, and that couldn’t be more obvious than with their first show, Honour Beat. Created by now-local playwright Tara Beagan together with a company entirely composed of Indigenous people and people of colour, it is a timely and unmistakeable illustration of the new direction that the company has chosen.

Back in the day, brand new, ripped-from-the-headlines theatre was the purview of TC’s neighbour at Arts Commons, Alberta Theatre Projects. TC was the slightly stodgier big brother, with a season composed of a mandatory Shakespeare, a musical comedy, and an A.R. Gurney or a J.B. Priestley for the more adventurous subscribers. In recent years, more new plays have made their way to the Max Bell stage, but usually find themselves safely sandwiched between some sure-thing crowd-pleasers so as not to scare anyone.

Well, the gloves are off now. There’s still a proven musical (Billy Elliot) and a classic (The Scarlet Letter), but otherwise new work dominates.

Honour Beat is a world premiere, commissioned by TC in 2017. The story is set in a single hospital room in Toronto, where Mom is dying, and her two daughters are by her side in her final hours. They are joined by Spanish, a nurse practitioner who has been involved in Mom’s care and has become her friend. Elder daughter Anna-Rae (Monique Mojica) has just returned from a Sundance in South Dakota, and brings with her a host of traditional practices that she would like to incorporate in her mother’s last days. Rae-Anna (Tracey Nepinak) is a mother of two in Vancouver, and harbours some resentment that her mother isn’t spending her last days in the Christian nursing home she had picked out in Surrey.

Anna-Rae and Rae-Anna are clearly designed to be mirror images of each other, a sibling yin and yang. The first act is almost entirely composed of establishing their long history of conflict, and the ways in which their separate fathers played a part in shaping their diverging paths.

The production feels slow in this first half, heavy on the exposition, with some perhaps unnecessary repetition. But it picks up steam in the second act, and begins to show rather than tell the uneasy bond between the sisters, challenged by the secrets they are keeping from each other. They begin to reflect on their mother’s role in defining their characters: “Who will I be when she goes?” wonders Anna-Rae. And, “I don’t even know which thoughts are mine and which are hers,” says Rae-Anna a few minutes later. Their reconciliation in the final minutes feels a little too easy, though, and it’s difficult to pick out a trajectory for their characters over the course of the two acts.

Director Michelle Thrush is fresh from a Betty Mitchell Award for her one-woman show Inner Elder at the High Performance Rodeo last year, which can be seen at One Yellow Rabbit again next month. Her staging is simple and straightforward on the one hand, concentrating the complexities of the mother-daughter relationships into a small hospital room that begins to feel somewhat like a pressure-cooker. But the remaining space on the capacious Max Bell stage is occupied by Andy Moro’s striking projections, which save the little set from drowning on the large stage, and create a dynamic backdrop for the very contained family drama.

One of the most engaging elements of the play is the fact that the women’s dying mother is played by the certainly-not-elderly Paula-Jean Prudat. Her childlike portrayal of a wise woman about to break her earthly bonds is a pleasure to watch, and while it’s initially puzzling, all becomes clear as she explains to her daughters that she still feels like a young woman: “35 and 81” she says. She is proud of the “strong-willed, self-actualized women” that her children have become, and wants to draw them together before she moves on.

The script does a nice job of blending the specificity of Indigenous culture with the universality of family relationships. The spectre of residential schools hangs over the play, as it does the lives of many First Nations people in Canada. The sisters are unsure of their history, and have chosen different paths to spirituality — an experience common among descendants of residential school survivors whose link to their traditions was deliberately severed. But there will be many non-Indigenous audiences who will see their own mothers and sisters reflected here, and will see this is an example of the role of the arts in reconciliation.

(Photo courtesy Brian Harde. (From left to right) Monique Mojica (Anna-Rae), Paula-Jean Prudat (Mom) and Tracey Nepinak (Rae-Anna).)

Honour Beat runs in the Max Bell Theatre until Sept. 29. For tickets and show times please click here.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.