— Dawn Petten, Deborah Williams and Marlene Ginader. Photo: David Cooper
All the stars seemed aligned for this one. On the 100th anniversary of the appointment of Vancouver’s—and Canada’s—first two female police officers, a new play about them premieres in the theatre that sits literally next door to the police station (now the police museum) where they worked. Could such a play be any more timely, given recent headlines about the ongoing harassment cases involving female RCMP officers?
In researching the histories of Constables Lurancy Harris and Minnie Millar, playwright Sally Stubbs says she found few facts to go on. So her play, Kid Gloves, is almost entirely a work of the imagination. Unfortunately, the story Stubbs imagines is flat, disjointed and not yet ready for prime time. Donna Spencer’s Firehall production only rarely sparks it to life.
The play is set in 1912 in a lurid, film-noirish Vancouver filled with bawdy houses, honky tonks, misogynist cops and suspect politicians. Little of that atmosphere is evoked by Francesca Albertazzi’s monochrome set or James Proudfoot’s undramatic lighting. Jeff McMahan’s ragtime piano and Barbara Clayden’s costumes provide the period flavour.
One feature of the women’s clothing is the floor-length skirts Harris and Millar are forced to wear as part of their uniform. Millar (Dawn Petten) doesn’t mind them. A modest Christian who comes to be known as Constable Squeak, she’s happy to follow the agenda set by Alderman Crane (Patrick Keating) and his Temperance Society wife (Deborah Williams) that she work “for the protection and reclamation” of women endangered by the city’s moral corruption.
Constable Harris (Colleen Wheeler) hates her skirt because it gets in her way when she chases down bad guys. A hard-ass with little sympathy for the whores her bleeding-heart liberal partner wants to save, Harris aspires to be a real cop, not just a lady cop. She wants to wear pants, nail perps and do forensics.
Although these broad strokes and the Firehall’s promotional photos suggest a turn-of-the-century Cagney and Lacey, Harris and Millar never emerge as distinctive characters or as a team with much theatrical chemistry, even at the hands of two of Vancouver’s best actresses.
Always fun to watch, Scott Bellis plays their superior, Constable Fields (with a thick gray moustache that kept coming loose opening night), as well as Irish gangster O’Rourke, who runs a string of brothels. O’Rourke has a history with both Harris and Mai Ji (Marlene Ginader), a young Asian woman who may be a vaudevillian, a prostitute, a victim, or none of what she seems. Deborah Williams gives the show’s funniest and most original performance as Mai Ji’s companion and protector, the powerful, grunting Bella.
The scenario provides plenty of opportunity for evocative storytelling, hard-hitting drama, revelatory local history, and period entertainment but little of it pays off. Neither script nor production ever settles on a consistent tone. The play can’t decide whether it wants to be the Keystone Kops or Taxi Driver.
The plot is all over the place, full of extraneous details and awkward rhythms, never finding a clear focus on any of its compelling subjects: political corruption, violence against women, or the challenges facing the first pioneers blazing a new professional trail.
Nor would the vaudeville routines performed by Ginader and Bellis have brought many customers into O’Rourke’s club.
The tale of Vancouver’s first policewomen awaits a better telling.