In The Press

  • When Someone Great is Gone
  • Nancy Bauer
  • 2012-03-12, The Telegraph Journal
  • Other Arts When someone great is gone Review of Dollar Woman, Recent Project with TNB Nancy Bauer State of the Art 11 Mar 2012 05:16AM Main story image I didn’t start off to write of people who contributed immensely to our province, but, serendipitously, it has turned out that way. I well remember the excitement surrounding the production of the plays by Walter Learning and Alden Nowlan in the 1970s: first Frankenstein: The Man Who Became God, then The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca and finally The Dollar Woman in 1977, each one more impressive than the last. Theirs was a great collaboration. The first play was entertaining because it was such a surprise – a real play, a good work, written by two people we knew. I remember the second had an engaging plot. A memorable image is the remarkable set with a train coming out of a subway cave. But The Dollar Woman moved me the most because it was about this place, dramatic yet nuanced, an original story. The decade from 1967 until 1977 was exciting in general for me, a newcomer. There was the feeling that New Brunswick was participating in a national renaissance and was holding its own. If anyone expresses doubts to you about what public money can do for the arts, get them to read the history of those times. Has any other community ever got so much of worth as this province did by supporting Alden Nowlan as writer-in-residence? In his 10 years here, Learning nearly single-handedly created Theatre New Brunswick. Alden and Claudine Nowlan hosted hundreds of students, visiting poets, local writers. He provided a model for how to be a writer. To be a writer, you write. You don’t have pretensions to be a writer. I was apprehensive about seeing The Dollar Woman again. Would it stand up to my memory? I wasn’t sure why they were staging it at the St. Thomas University Black Box Theatre rather than at The Playhouse. The acoustics there are sometimes not kind to my elderly ears. But it was even better than I remember it. It has a subtlety that most popular plays don’t. Even the villain turns out to be sympathetic. No one has been able to solve the problem of what to do with paupers. How can society look after people who are unable to look after themselves – the simple-minded, the insane, the senile or the physically weak? One of Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’ is “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” What does that mean? It’s called a hard saying because we don’t know what it exactly means. Nowlan and Learning manage to capture just that ambiguity. Even though the play has a philosophical basis, it’s dramatic, not just a series of speeches. The story goes, Nowlan was researching the history of Campobello Island when he came across this unusual way for a town to take care of its poor. They auctioned off the paupers one by one; the lowest bidder won. The town paid that amount of money to the winner to take care of the person – feed, clothe and house them. The person who won could try to get as much work out of the pauper as he could. The alternative was to build an almshouse. Lewis White, the lead in the play, “the overseer of the poor,” understood that putting someone in an almshouse wasn’t an ideal answer. The town I grew up in had an almshouse, called the poor farm. My mother’s sad cousin lived there. Not only was The Dollar Woman about New Brunswick by two New Brunswickers, but this time it had “an all-star New Brunswick cast.” On my way out, someone commented to me that they were surprised that Learning was such a good actor with such presence. ‘Presence,’ whether onstage or off, is just what Learning has oodles of. Presence and energy, and a wonderful voice. Marshall Button was terrific as one of the poor – comic and tragic alternately. Nora Sheehan, one of the people looking after the poor, managed to embody the problem. In fact, everyone in the cast was good, most of them professionals. How could New Brunswick have mounted a play with so many professionals? Director Ilkay Silk made the most of the intimate setting of the Black Box Theatre. For some reason I can’t pin down, I heard every word without straining. The professionals projecting? Whatever ‘projecting’ means. On another note, I was sad to read that Molly Fry died on March 1. Has the province ever benefitted more from the work of any couple than it has from George and Molly Fry? George built the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design into the outstanding institution that it is, and Molly designed and put in place our provincial kindergarten. Not to mention all the encouragement and inspiration they both have given to artists, writers, craftspeople and teachers. – Nancy Bauer is a writer of fiction and arts commentary based in Fredericton. She can be reached at wbauer@nbnet.nb.ca.
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