by Joan Bryans
based on the letters of
Annie and Jessie McQueen
Vital Spark Theatre
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery
October 5-15
604 224 8007, ext 3

History, the cliché goes, is written by the victors.  And until recently, history has almost entirely been written by men. 

When director Joan Bryans came upon a collection of letters from two sisters who lived and worked in the BC interior in the 1880s, she realized she was seeing “How the West Was Won” from a new angle.  In Two Years in Nicola, Bryans dramatizes the ground-level experiences of these pioneering women whose most extraordinary quality may have been their very ordinariness.

Annie and Jessie McQueen are young Nova Scotian teachers who emigrate to the Nicola Valley.  Extroverted Annie comes first, in 1887, joined a year later by her prim sister.  They board in different homes, Annie in Nicola Lake, Jessie in Lower Nicola (pop. 30), and teach in different schools. 

For Annie, it’s all a great adventure.  She settles in quickly and embraces every challenge: going to a potlatch, taking shooting lessons, bundling up for buggy rides in -50 degree weather.  She’s irrepressibly optimistic and “aggravatingly” healthy.  Early on, she observes that “gentlemen are very plentiful over here,” and before long she’s engaged, then married with a house and a baby.

By contrast, Jessie lacks daring and never really acclimatizes.  Unimpressed by the geography, the dusty metropolis of Kamloops, or the local male population, she suffers from homesickness.  Gradually, she starts to come around, observing with glee how she’s “getting plump as a prairie chicken.”  But when Annie marries and moves way, and a promising beau dies in a gruesome sawmill accident, Jessie lapses into depression.

And that’s pretty much it.  The material is not inherently dramatic, at least in any conventional way, with little conflict, especially in Annie’s story, and hardly any arc.  The interest comes from the texture of everyday life on the BC frontier as described by the women.  Bryans uses their own words from letters home to their mother, and fortunately the McQueen’s were sharp observers who could turn a witty phrase.

But Bryans’ decision to have each woman recite her letters to the audience further reduces the play’s dramatic effect.  The absence of dialogue, with the sisters sitting at separate tables on either side of the stage only occasionally making eye contact, underlines their isolation but deprives us of any real sense of their intimacy and, in Annie’s case, sociability.

Melanie Walden begins a little over-emphatically and excessively chirpy, but settles down to deliver a nice performance as the ever positive Annie who carves out a charmed life for herself.  Alexis Quednau shines as the contained, somewhat anal Jessie whose future is left hanging ambiguously at the end.  Jesse Olson has mixed success playing all the men’s roles and narrating news stories from the Kamloops Sentinel.

This is our history presented from a perspective we rarely get to see.

Jerry Wasserman


last updated: Saturday, October 8, 2005 2:05 PM
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