Northern Light Theatre’s season starts off with a conflagration, at the Varscona Theatre, with Linda Wood Edwards’ play The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921, directed by Trevor Schmidt. Sue Huff plays Mrs. Hastings and Twilla Macleod plays Mrs. Smith, both independent businesswomen in the small Central Alberta mining town of Big Valley. The social distance between them is large, as the blunt joyful pragmatic Hastings runs a whorehouse and Smith, a devotee of Queen Victoria and of propriety, runs a boardinghouse for unwed pregnant girls/women and helps to place their children for adoption. The costumes (production designer Alison Yanota) emphasize their differences, with Hastings in flamboyant reds and flapper style, and Smith in cool buttoned-up floorlength blues. Although both of them operate business/social enterprises dependent on men for their existence, the interactions between these two women and descriptions of offstage characters and action pass the Bechdel-Wallace test easily (“do two women have a conversation that is not about a man?”)
Productions of Northern Light Theatre often keep me guessing a bit about their genre or mood, which makes them more interesting to me than a more predictable play. As you might expect, the two characters start out hostile to each other and full of assumptions based on past hurts, but later find some similarities in their grief and in their ambitions. The funniest part is … something I’m not going to spoil, but the advice about avoiding unnecessary clothing repairs. It’s not a tidy ending, but it’s a satisfying one, leaving me thinking about middle-aged women making their own way and starting over, and about the harm done by mistrust and prejudice among groups of women.
The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921 runs to Sunday November 28, with tickets available for digital viewing as well as in-person performance under the Restrictions Exemption Program. The Varscona Theatre is a large auditorium and audience members are asked to leave space between each party. The concession and washrooms are open. Running time is a bit under 70 minutes.
The next play I’ll be watching is the one I’m directing now, Walterdale Theatre’s 5@50 – another look at women in middle age, how they can support each other and how they can wound each other. Tickets are available at the link.