YEARS IN NICOLA
by Joan Bryans
based on the letters of
Annie and Jessie McQueen
Vital Spark Theatre
Jericho Arts Centre
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