First off, I fully admit that I am always embarrassed by my lack of knowledge when I discover some piece of Canadian history that I know nothing about. Ask me who our first Prime Minister was and I can do it. Louis Riel? Absolutely. When British Columbia joined Canada? Not a problem. But a Home Child? Huh? Never heard of it.
And that is the real beauty behind Homechild by Joan MacLeod currently on stage at the Arts Club Stanley Theatre through April 12th. Not only did I a walk away entertained but educated as well.
For those not in the know like me, Home Children is what a group of more than 100,000 British orphans were called when they were sent to Canada between 1869 and the early 1930s. While some of these children made it into loving homes, others were exploited as cheap agricultural labour and still others were victimized in a variety of ways including being denied proper shelter and education, and not being allowed to socialize with Canadian children. In fact, it was apparently quite common for home children to run away in search of a more caring family or better working conditions.
Alistair MacEachern (Duncan Fraser) was a Home Child and was separated from his younger sister, Katie (Hayley Carr) upon arriving in Canada. Now near the end of his life, Alistair longs to find Katie but at the same time simply wants to forget about the family that was both torn from him and who abandoned him in the first place.
Mike Stack and Donna White in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s
production of Homechild. Photo by David Cooper.
Also searching for her own roots, Alistair’s daughter Lorna (Jillian Fargey) pays an infrequent visit to the family farm. While visiting, Alistair suffers a stroke and while in hospital tells Lorna about his long lost sister and asks her to find her. As she sets out to find Katie, the real story of who she is, her roots and her father’s hard life begins to emerge.
In the meantime, Lorna’s Aunt Flora (Donna White), who has cared for Alistair since the death of his wife some ten years ago, begins to worry about the existence of a sister that Alistair has never talked about. What does that mean for Flora? If Lorna finds Katie will she be replaced?
Helping Lorna in her quest for the truth is family friend Wesley (Jacques Lalonde), who is obviously interested in more than just helping Katie, and Wesley’s mom Dorrie (Anna Hagan) who provides some missing pieces to the puzzle. Brother Ewan (Mike Stack), who has lived on the family farm with his father and Flora for most of his life, is not the least bit interested in knowing about his past and only interested in keeping the family peace.
There are some really fine performances here by both Duncan Fraser and Jillian Fargey. Fraser really gets the chance to show his acting chops as he takes his character not only through an emotional time in reconnecting with his past, but also as a stroke victim.
Ted Roberts’ set design is simply superb with its farmhouse on a turntable allowing an easy movement between interior and exterior scenes. The other set elements of grasses and grains give an almost museum diorama quality. Coupled with Marsha Sibthorpe’s lighting it made for a picture perfect representation of the family homestead complete with the creaking and squeaking as the turntable moved between scenes.
But beyond being educated and entertained, I couldn’t help but but be a bit melancholy by playwright MacLeod’s words as she managed to elicit many memories of my own family gatherings on my grandparent’s farm, gossip and the ultimate talk about family, history and roots.