To those of us on the outside, life in a polygamous community – notorious Bountiful, B.C., for instance – is an aberration. But if you’ve grown up in such a bell-jar setting, you’d view the community as entirely normal.
Understanding that process of normalization is important for Erica Anderson. She plays the titular character in Joan MacLeod’s one-person play Gracie, at the Great Canadian Theatre Company starting April 24, The play tracks Gracie between the ages of 8 and 15 as she comes of age inside a polygamous community, a place where everything, including the marrying off of teenage girls to older men, is controlled by its leaders.
“There’s a very innocent quality to a person who only knows this as their world,” says Anderson, an Ottawa native and graduate of Canterbury High School’s drama program who now lives in Toronto.
In a community like Bountiful, “There’s not that teen self-discovery,” she continues. “A lot of these women live these kind of innocent childhoods and then it gets very quickly stripped from them … all of a sudden, they’re forced into motherhood and they’re no longer kids at 15.”
Until she auditioned for this show, Anderson knew next to nothing about life in places like the B.C. community, which is home to breakaway, fundamentalist Mormon sects. She was fascinated by the play’s exploration of the lives in such places, lives that are scarcely heeded by the media despite widespread attention to leaders like Bountiful’s Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who were last year convicted of polygamy (Blackmore fathered more than 145 children with two dozen wives, while Oler had five wives and an undetermined number of children).
But if she knew nothing of polygamous communities, Anderson did know about Joan MacLeod, having performed in her The Shape of a Girl at Canterbury. That’s MacLeod’s much-praised play inspired by the 1997 murder of bullied teen Reena Virk in Saanich, B.C.
“I fell in love with how (MacLeod) is able to capture young women’s experience,” says Anderson, 25. “Her writing isn’t preaching; it really is just through the eyes of the character having that experience.”
MacLeod, who teaches at the University of Victoria, says she was inspired to write about a polygamous community because Bountiful had been on her radar for years and because religion, like the community, is complex.
“It was an interesting challenge, a complicated thing to write about, and that’s always a good thing for me,” says the Governor General Award-winning playwright.
Her research included a couple of trips to the outskirts of Bountiful, where a No Trespassing sign and a chain across the road made it clear strangers had no place there. Despite that, she says the countryside around the community was beautiful, and she watched young boys, apparently no different than young boys anywhere, playing on their bikes.
She also visited the fringes of Hildale, Utah, where Warren Jeffs, a sect leader with the splinter group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, ran a large polygamous compound. Jeffs is serving a life sentence for child sexual assault.
In neither Bountiful nor Hildale did MacLeod attempt to interview community members. That would have made her beholden to the people she interviewed, she believes. She did, however, read extensively about the communities.
While there are other characters in the show, all played by the actor portraying Gracie, MacLeod says that focusing on Gracie allowed her to filter the community through a child’s eyes. “When I think of Bountiful and what’s wrong with it, that’s my first area of concern: the children that grow up there and what their choices are.”
For Anderson, playing Gracie has meant a growth in perspective. She says that when she auditioned for the part, she tried to do it without personal judgment — she was hoping, after all, to play the part of someone who sees her upbringing as normal.
But Anderson now views such communities as unhealthy, places that damage not just girls but males as well because a man who doesn’t have wives is seen as worthless and destined for Hell. Those cast-off men, she says, often drift into homelessness, drugs and alcohol.
Despite the damage visited on both sexes in polygamous communities, Anderson views Gracie as a “beautiful” character. And she says audiences can expect to see the story from the perspective of “a person who’s full of life and excited about the possibilities of life. Let her tell you her story…. She’s just so excited to tell you about her life.”
Gracie is at GCTC April 24-May 13 (April 24 & 25, previews; opening night, April 26). Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca