Our Eliza on Its Way to Greatness

our eliza

renee hackett & greg malone

Eastern Front Theatre kicked off its new Spring Festival, The Stages Festival, formerly known as Supernova and On the Waterfront, with a new play from Megan Coles, a young playwright from Newfoundland who is also a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada. Produced by Newfoundland’s Poverty Cove Theatre Company Our Eliza exemplifies Artistic Producer Charlie Rhindress’ new vision for Eastern Front and this new festival, that it features work from artists from the East Coast at different stages of development, different stages of their careers and on different stages in Halifax.

Our Eliza is a deeply rooted regional story with a universal heart. It tells the story of Eliza, the oldest child of a family full of boys, and her father, who was left to raise them when his wife died in childbirth. It is a familiar and important story of the sacrifices that women have made throughout the centuries as they are obliged to dedicate their lives to their families, rather than chasing after their own dreams, ambitions and talents. I love that Our Eliza focuses primarily on Eliza’s relationship with her father, but that she is the unequivocal central character and that the story unfolds from her perspective. Their relationship is rich and complex. It is clear that her father loves her, but he has also been conditioned to expect Eliza to look after him, and all other men in her family, regardless of how drunk, irresponsible, thoughtless or ungrateful he may be, simply because she is a woman.

Megan Coles’ strongest talent as a playwright is the way that she captures the distinctive dialect of this rural town in Newfoundland and how beautifully the language comes alive to add a hearty flavour to her three characters. The words that Eliza and her father choose and the way that each constructs his or her sentences is carefully considered and beautifully revealing. For example, the father often talks around his most vulnerable emotions, his gruffness has an undertone of warmth and the disparity between his vocabulary and Eliza’s suggests the gulf between his generation and hers as well as the  world of the past he is trying to force her to inhabit and the world of the future she longs for.

There are some incredible performances in this play. Renee Hackett, as Eliza, has a moment of sheer despair sitting on the floor as she reels from the recent death of her husband that is so truthful to her emotion it is gripping to watch. Greg Malone gives a beautifully nuanced portrayal of the father as he unravels tragically under the strain of a life full of hardship and weary in his old age.

Our Eliza is full of tragedy and the stakes should feel overwhelmingly high for the audience, yet there are still some dramaturgical kinks that keep Coles’ heart wrenching story from packing the punch it deserves. There are some parts that seem overwritten, where Coles would benefit from leaving room for the actors’ mastery of subtlety and subtext. Conversely, Eliza’s relationship with her husband, Hank, seems underdeveloped. It is clear that Eliza grows irate and bitter under the heavy thumb of her father, but it is less clear how or if Eliza’s desires were thwarted also in the years she spent living with Hank. It is implied that her relationship with her husband was much different from that of her father, but what impact did that have on the development of Eliza’s sense of self and the choices she was able to make during those years of her life? I also found it interesting that despite the play’s obvious feminist intention I actually found myself sympathizing with the father more than I sympathized with Eliza because I could see so beautifully his grief, his inability to connect with his daughter, but his desire to do so, while Eliza isn’t given the same depth of complex emotion behind her anger and her martyrdom. There is still more to explore here, but with her compelling mastery of language and dialogue Coles has a very solid foundation on which to build. This is one play that is currently good, but that has the potential to be powerfully great.

Eliza’s story resonates especially ardently with me because my grandmother often speaks about the injustices she faced as the oldest girl in a family of seven children raised in a small town on Prince Edward Island in the 1920s. Many of us who are driven to follow our hearts, or who simply have the privilege to choose which paths we take, owe so much to the women in our own families whose ambitions and dreams were left unrealized. It is exciting to see a young playwright giving such a passionate voice to one of these too often unrecognized heroines.

Our Eliza played at Neptune’s Scotiabank Studio Theatre May 29-June 1 as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Festival. Mary Walsh stars in Dancing With Rage through June 4th and Kingdom and The Perfection of Man open on June 5th. For more information about these plays and other events happening at the Stages Festival or to book your tickets please visit this website, or come down to the Box Office at 1593 Argyle Street or phone 902.429-7070. Plays are $20.00-$45.00. Readings are a suggested donation of $5.00. 

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