by Claudia Dey
Presentation House Theatre
Claudia Dey’s Beaver is a frequently compelling, overwritten, rambling, colourful, and depressing piece of self-conscious Canadiana. A coming of age story, it unfolds amid a grab-bag of cultural clichés, a few riveting images, and juicy characters in a small Northern town—think Margaret Laurence meets Judith Thompson. It’s way too long and doesn’t add up to a whole lot, but Brenda Leadley’s Presentation House production gives it a good shot.
Beaver is Beatrice (Tricia Collins), 12 years old when her mother, Rose, throws herself out a window in Timmins, Ontario. In the powerful opening scenes we see her on the day of the funeral, inadvertently left behind at the cemetery by her grandmother and aunts in a freezing blizzard, talking to her mother’s ghost (Tallulah Winkelman) while her father, Silo (Byron Chief-Moon), is passed out drunk at the tavern.
Beaver is of that ever-popular and rarely successful genre, the Three Sisters play. In the modern version of Chekhov the sisters are always radically different. In this case the youngest, Sima (Robin Mooney), a professional dominatrix, sibilantly describes them as “a spinster, a slut, and a suicide.” The spinster is Nora (Suzanne Ristic), who has arranged for Beatrice to live with her, though Beatrice would much rather stay with her alcoholic dad. Taking the place of dead Rose in the sisters’ structure is their foul-mouthed mother, Nora (Lee Van Paasen), given to gnomic sayings like, “Don’t mutter—muttering is for mistresses in the back seat of taxis.”
The play has a feminist thrust with young Beaver—the name she gives herself after her first sexual experience—groping her way toward some kind of vague, independent selfhood in the rambling second act which takes place five years later. Slutty Sima does her dominatrix thing to Silo’s friend Cowboy (Patrick Keating) in a rather gratuitous scene, and spinsterish Nora gets her mojo back. But the most dynamic female presence is butch family friend Dorris (a far too broad but strangely effective Gillian Stevens-Guille), who tells a terrific, horrible story of revenge against her male relatives.
The only male relative in the play, Silo, surprisingly comes off pretty sympathetically, despite his destructive alcoholic parenting and spousal co-dependency. All the characters do, actually; Dey suspends moral judgments. It’s as if she’s saying, “How could anyone help but be screwed up and unhappy in a shithole like this?” And we hope that Beaver swims off and makes a life for herself, happily ever after somewhere else, though the signs aren’t particularly promising.
On Barbara Clayden’s effective all-white set, suggestive of the barren, frozen landscape, Leadley gets some sparks from her strong cast. Collins is a convincing Beaver, and her scenes with her father and mother are especially effective.