The Dunsmuir story is a Canadian saga with all the ingredients for great drama. A dirt-poor Scottish clan that came over to Nanaimo in the mid-19th century to work in the mines, they went from lunch-bucket-carrying “pit pony” coal miners to one of BC’s wealthiest families in a single generation. Robert Dunsmuir built his wife a castle in Victoria—Craigdarroch, still standing—but the family itself was torn apart in the process.
Vancouver Island dramatist Rod Langley wrote two plays about the Dunsmuirs that Duncan Fraser produced when he ran the Nanaimo Theatre Festival in the 1980s. Now Langley has compressed the two plays into one, and Fraser and his wife Lee Van Paassen star as Robert Dunsmuir and his wife Joan in director Bill Devine’s Sea Theatre production.
They’re two terrific actors, as is William Samples, doubling as Robert’s drunken best friend Jock and the effete, snooty banker who finances the family’s corporate venture. But the script fails to lift this rousing tale very far off the ground. Moving from old-fashioned linear narrative to over-the-top Victorian melodrama, it never achieves the Shakespearean size, significance or poetry to which it aspires.
When the play opens, Joan and Robert have been living as pariahs in their miners’ cabin with sons Alex (Daniel Arnold) and James (Mike Wasko) for twenty years, ever since Robert broke faith with his community by scabbing and strike-breaking in order to secure from the company an independent miner’s license, allowing him to prospect for coal in his spare time. He’s become obsessed with striking it rich.
Joan bears their situation but fears for son James down in the pit. Alex, who works above-ground, bitterly resents his father and finds a soul-mate in Susan (Cat Main), Jock’s daughter and James’ fiancée. The two of them feel as trapped in the hostile, isolated company town as Robert did back in the Scottish town he fled for Canada.
The subplot involving the Alex-Susan-James triangle never gets fully developed. And Alex’s vexed relationship with his immigrant father feels deeply conventional. Marcus Youssef and Camyar Chai’s Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil, having recently played in the same Presentation House theatre, parodies exactly this relationship as a Canadian dramatic cliché.
When Robert does find his mother lode of coal, he has to make a deal with the capitalist devil of a banker to develop it, and when threatened with foreclosure the Dunsmuirs must once more turn against their own community in order to salvage their dream and become rich. That’s where the play turns to high melodrama, the long-suffering Joan transforming into Lady Macbeth in a climactic scene that requires director Devine to show a lot more restraint.
Right up to that moment Van Paassen is marvelous as Joan, the rock of the family who decides at some point that she has to cross over to the dark side. Fraser is totally at home with the obsessive patriarchal Dunsmuir, the hard, proud man with a deep streak of vulnerability. And Samples nearly steals the show with his wonderful comedy-of-manners turns as Jock and the banker. Casting him in both these contrasting roles feels like a brilliant Brechtian stroke, but the rest of the production remains firmly within its generic restraints.