In these days of fairly routine genetic testing, of early diagnosis of susceptibility to genetically based diseases, in these times of new reproductive technologies, in these years so removed from the eugenics movements of the last century which culminated most darkly in the Final Solution, today, when a generation or two has grown up with no memory of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. . . .
These days a little touch of eugenics, a little improvement of the breed, might seem attractive. Maybe people with heritable genetic disorders should be encouraged to remain childless. Maybe, to improve the gene pool . . . .
But any attractiveness which may rise up today, if it is based on science at all, is based, like the earlier eugenics movements, on the science of stock breeding, which has created a gene pool so limited in many species that extinction could come from a minor illness. True genetic strength in a population comes from variety, from the mess that is natural selecion. A four person panel sterilizing a scatter of people based on brief interviews will do far less for the strength of the breed than will education, diet, public health, and the genetic roll of the dice that is human courtship behaviour.
We know all this – or should – by this point in our scientific investigation of the universe. And yet, we remain faced with new challenges because we can know so much about our children before they are born or even before they are conceived. It is indeed a Brave New World in the dark Huxlean sense of Miranda’s phrase. My neighbour Theresa Shea has recently confronted us with these issues provokingly in her novel The Unfinished Child. Some four decades ago, Betty Lambert confronted us from the other end of Eugenic History in her wrenching play Jennie’s Story currently in revival at Edmonton’s Walterdale Playhouse.
I scored a couple of tickets to opening night courtesy of Assistant Stage Manager Jenna Marynowski, but, I confess, I hesitated about taking my usual theatre-loving sidekick. You see, if she’d been born three or four or more decades earlier, she might have ended up before the Board for a decision under the Sexual Sterilization Act. It was looking to be a potentially heavy and personal evening of theatre.
In the end, I, like society at large, eventually made the right decision and opted for inclusion, and it was yet another evening of theatre magic in Edmonton.
A note about the Walterdale Playhouse
There can be shit on Broadway and gold in a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar, so don’t anybody get snooty about Community Theatre. In my limited experience I’ve seen (now Sir) Patrick Stewart in a pedestrian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company and I’ve seen the grab bag of characters in the Freewill Players make magic on a shoestring with the same play. Any stage can be boring or can be magical, but in my experience of the do-it-for-the-love-of-theatre crowd at the Walterdale have consistently delivered the goods.
To the play, the production and the performances
As I mentioned, Jennie’s Story is not a new play. It was first staged a decade before Leilani Muir brought the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act to wider public attention with her successful law suit against the Alberta Government for unlawful confinement, forced sterilization, and the lasting stigma of having been legally labelled a “moron”. it will be remembered that Muir was, in fact, of “normal” mental ability and had actually been an abused and unwanted child.
Muir’s real experiences, and those of so many others, are reflected in the fictional experiences of Jennie McGrane, the tragic heroine of Jennie’s Story. And herein also lies a fundamental tension in the experience of the play. We go to the play today with (if we’re Albertans of sufficient age and attentiveness to current events) with some knowledge of the Sexual Sterilisation Act. And, we likely go on thinking, “well, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to sterilize the *severely* mentally handicapped, like Carolyn in Shea’s Unfinished Child.” (But readers of The Unfinished Child may remember that Carolyn was institutionally abused – perhaps the cause of the severity of her disability, and, Carolyn became biological mother to a “normal” child.) Jennie’s Story overturns any such preconceptions immediately. Heather Brooke, in a beautiful, silent, lovingly long opening shows us that Jennie is ravishingly in love with life, devoted to her home and husband, brilliant in the role she sees for herself, keeper of the home fires of a rural farmstead in 1930s Alberta. There is nothing about Jennie that is not beautifully and wholly human. And yet, she is the subject of this story of the legal, forceful sterilization of a “mental defective”. Within thirty seconds Heather Brooke and Jennie’s Story overturn expectations and more than a few unnuanced prejudices.
The set is a beautiful piece of simplicity. All action takes place in the big farmhouse kitchen typical of Canada’s prairies. I can remember staying in a guest house on a painting excursion to Eastend, Saskatchewan and being amazed that the kitchen of the old house took up half the main floor. Stage right there’s a small riser with a tiny bed, Jennie’s refuge and the location of an aborted intimate moment between Jennie and her devoted but overwhelmed husband, Harry (Ryan Beck).
The set dressing is exquisitely evocative of the time, right down to the black cast iron hand pump (Princess Auto?) I have two for rainbarrels) which really pumps water into the kitchen sink. This is a well appointed Alberta farmhouse kitchen circa 1938. With newly installed electric lights!
I probably should avoid spoilers, so, suffice it to say, Jennie, as a young teenager, was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, on the pretext of being a mental defective, but actually because of the horrific combined events of: her mother having lost five babies and then her husband – which made her malleable when here signature of consent was needed; the serial sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her parish priest; and, most heinous, the priest’s selfish desire to cover up his abuse.
Syrell Wilson as Edna, Jennie’s mother, is wonderful, by turns slave-driver intent on expunging all household “filth” with lye-water and shatteringly vulnerable as the virtual sole-survivor of a family wiped out by the vagaries of chance or God.
John Trethart is chillingly slimy and tortured and self-righteous as Father Edward, but I found myself feeling he was a bit too much channelling Tom Baker as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. I couldn’t help but uncomfortably feel that Father Edward was a much lesser victim but a victim nonetheless of the absurd requirement of celibacy of young men “called” to the priesthood. Edward is a local farm boy, from the same area as Jennie. in a sensible world, we would have courted a young lady, and she would have courted him, and they would have discovered the world of sexuality together as equals. But in a Catholic community in Alberta in the 1930s, he has been shoved into celibacy before he knew what it was. But these nuances of Father Edward’s background are largely ignored, and he is left a sort of Mad Monk, not yet old enough for a beard, but already cultivating the haughty disposition, the greasy black hair, and the black cassock of Rasputin. But Trethart does a tremendous job of this villainous priest.
I haven’t said enough about Ryan Beck as Jennie’s husband. Beck i completely natural as the strong man who is in control of his universe, the sensitive man who reads poetry and wishes his wife would damn well sit down with the men like an equal, and the man who is out of his depth because the people beyond his circle are doing unfathomable things.
And Heather Brooke’s Jennie, a devoutly, faithfully, trustingly Catholic girl who would have been truly and properly (for her) fulfilled as the mother of a happy brood of children fathered by a good if somewhat eccentric husband. I know well exactly such completely positive Catholic families. It is a tragedy – a true tragedy – that Jennie isn’t destined to be the matriarch of such a family, and Brooke makes us know this tragedy.
And, finally, Molly as Molly. Molly Mackinnon as the long suffering, hard working, magnificently gravid Molly Dorval. She’s the perfect apple cheeked, impertinent but obedient farm girl. She’s the one who feeds the farm hands when threshing time comes, inspite of not because of the guidance of Edna. She’s sixteen going on thirty-seven and running a complex business while carrying some Doukhobor fellow’s child under her skirt. She’s living proof of the success of natural selection, a stunning contrast to the failure of the Sexual Sterilization Act. But she remains vulnerable, as shown in her quiet scene with Harry. Homesick and pregnant, she’s asked to tell a story, and the story she tells shows her to be as in love with life as Jennie showed us in that silent opening scene.
Molly and Jennie are obviously parallel characters, but I would argue, from experience, that the parallel is not contrived. I well remember a young woman, single, a new mother, a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who, through the efforts of the Church was housed through her pregnancy and as a single mother in the basement suite of a young Morman family. The situation was, in fact, horrible. The couple upstairs had a number of fine children, but the mother, before marriage, had been an unwed mother. The very same church had in contrast “encouraged” her to give her child up for adoption. How hard would it be to have your church “encourage” you to host an unwed mother and her child in your home when the church had told you to abandon your own child? How hard is it for forcefully sterilized, Catholicly maternal Jennie to have obviously fecund Molly sharing a house with her husband?
Jennie’s Story isn’t a sledge hammer polemic about the Sexual Sterilization Act or about eugenics. Rather, it is an examination of the implications of the transfer of reproductive decisions from the family to the State or Church. Jennie’s Story is a story we must consider more and more as reproductive technologies progress and as the eugenics programs of the last century recede into history.
A final note on the set dressing
The gun behind the door, although fired in Act II, is not Chekov’s gun. Chekov’s gun is under the counter, and in the bucket, and in so much of the dialogue about cleaning.
Jennie’s Story is at the Walterdale Playhouse in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Theatre District until July 12th, 2014.