Review: Gracie a compelling, chilling coming of age story

At one point in Gracie, Joan MacLeod’s compelling play about a girl’s coming of age in an isolated polygamous community, the titular character stands on a road at the border of where she lives. The road is blocked by a chain, and there’s a No Trespassing sign. “I know I’m home when I see that sign,” says Gracie in the safe, contented tone another child might use when sighting a favourite corner store or a friendly neighbour.

It’s a chilling line and an ironic comment on what life is like for young Gracie – played sensitively by Erica Anderson in the new Great Canadian Theatre Company production of MacLeod’s one-woman, multi-character show – and for the other female members of her community.

For them, life is, in fact, one of continual trespass. Young women have their own, most precious property – their bodies, their minds, their futures – trampled on by the aging, controlling men who rule the community in the name of faith (MacLeod has based her play on the notorious community of Bountiful, B.C., run by breakaway Mormon sects).

These men treat women as little more than breeding machines for populating their fiefdom. Girls are protected until, at 15 or younger, they are married off, their education halted and any opportunity for self-determination or self-discovery snatched away as they quickly, and repeatedly, become pregnant. Yoked like other women to a single man, they become “sister wives,” an identity-robbing term Margaret Atwood might have used in The Handmaid’s Tale.

For young Gracie, standing on that road and with no contact beyond her own, insular upbringing, all this is perfectly normal, the way life is meant to be. As horrifying as the other trespasses surrounding her, that perception of normalcy is also what finally cracks, impelling Gracie – always an observant and determined person – into what ultimately leads her beyond the strictures of that which she’s always known.

MacLeod has structured her play in roughly two-year increments, so we meet Gracie at eight, ten, 12 and 15 years old. It’s a clever choice on the playwright’s part, allowing us to view the world through the eyes of a changing Gracie at a critical period in her life and underscoring the numbingly static nature of the belief system that threatens to destroy her.

Anderson shines as she embodies Gracie’s transition from a trusting, irrepressible youngster who’s recently arrived with her single mother and siblings in this new community to someone on the edge of womanhood becoming increasingly attuned to what’s about to engulf her.

At 10, for instance, she still bears much of the carriage of an 8-year-old, but there are now hints of gravity and awareness of others. At 12, she’s a ‘tween but Anderson, herself only 25 and presumably still close enough to her younger self to remember, also hints at the older girl already unfurling within Gracie.

The script is peppered with details and scenes that bring Gracie and her life into fresh focus. In one such instance, Gracie, agog at its vitality, visits a town near her community. But when, marked as an oddity by her traditional dress, she becomes fodder for tourists’ cameras, she slumps on a bench as though trying to disappear. Under Eric Coates’s direction, it’s a fine little moment of theatre, allowing us to simultaneously view Gracie from inside herself and through the prying eyes of those tourists.

The play focuses on Gracie, but there are a dozen-odd other characters also played, in short segments, by Anderson. We meet her mother, her older sisters, her troubled brother Billy and some community members.

Anderson depicts most but not all of these characters successfully. For example, Mr. Shelby, an elder who marries her mother, isn’t much more than a physical gesture or two and a male voice (to be fair, Anderson is hampered here by MacLeod’s failure to develop Shelby as much as he needs to be).

Repugnant as the elders and their beliefs are, there’s also beauty and humanity in this place. MacLeod’s compassionate, encompassing vision, captured in the warmth of Roger Schultz’s wooden, multi-level set and Guillaume Houët’s lighting design, includes a strong sense of family – albeit an extended one, considering these men father so many children – and lyrical moments that paint the landscape and the vitality of youngsters.

It’s that beauty and humanity that need the No Trespassing sign.

Gracie is a GCTC production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until May 13. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.