Joan MacLeod’s sympathetic new play draws its material from a Canadian historical phenomenon that is largely unknown today: the transportation from Britain to Canada of orphaned and abandoned young children, more than 100,000 of them between 1870 and 1930. They were known as home children, and most ended up living and working on Canadian farms, many of them exploited, few able to keep in touch with siblings or other family members.
MacLeod sets the play in present-day Ontario, where former home child Alistair (Duncan Fraser), now an elderly widower with dementia, is cared for by his chipper sister-in-law Flora (Donna White, in a wonderfully vivid characterization) and his son, Ewan (Mike Stack). But the present is framed by the past: monologues by Alistair’s sister Katie (Hayley Carr), back in Glasgow when the two of them were young children (Alistair then known as Jacky), abandoned by their mother, and separated when Alistair was sent to Canada. Alongside Ted Roberts’ Canadian farmhouse set, Katie sits on a swing, as present to the audience as she is to Alistair’s memories—though he hasn’t seen her for 60 or 70 years.
None of Alistair’s family knows about Katie; he suffers his traumatic losses in angry silence. And the first half of the play only tangentially deals with that dramatic axis. Instead, it focuses on Alistair’s adult daughter Lorna (Jillian Fargey), who comes to visit for the first time in three years. She’s citified and divorced, has a strained relationship with her brother and is seriously estranged from Alistair. The subject of the home children comes up only in conversation with old neighbour (Anna Hagan), another former home child, and her son (Jacques Lalonde, making a welcome appearance in a non-Fringe play).
While all these actors are very good, the contemporary family drama is just not all that interesting, no matter how snappily Jane Heyman directs their exchanges. And because the situation of the home children generally, and of Katie and Alistair in particular, is presented to us reconstructed in exposition, it has very little theatrical substance.
The dramatic stakes get raised significantly in the second act when Alistair suffers a stroke and the family, led by Lorna, discover the existence of a long-lost sister and set out to find her. The best parts of the play involve Fraser’s powerfully effective rendition of Alistair’s physical difficulties as a result of the stroke, and his powerfully affecting stroke- and dementia-inflected fantasies of being a boy again, Jacky, with Katie.
Spoiler Alert: don’t read this paragraph if you’re going to see the play. However, when the adult Katie, now called Jean (Shirley Broderick), turns up at the farm, she seems normal, healthy, having gotten past her home child past relatively unscathed. She makes Alistair’s behaviour seem more like individual neurosis than institutional trauma. It takes a final melodramatic revelation involving their mother to explain Alistair’s radical disaffection.
I’m a huge MacLeod fan. I love the way her best plays (Toronto, Mississippi, The Hope Slide, Amigo’s Blue Guitar, The Shape of a Girl) reach across time and space, connecting people and events, trying—not always successfully—to heal the rifts. In this case I don’t think her instinct was right. Considering how little most of us know of the homechild story, she might have better served it and us by focusing dramatically on the children in their time of loss, and the parents who were forced to lose them, and their immediate pain.