Here’s one for the theatre geeks.
For the Shaw Festival’s lunchtime show this year, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has unearthed two short American plays from the 1910s that rarely see stage light: a lesser-known one-act by the well-known Eugene O’Neill, and a well-known one-act by the lesser-known Susan Glaspell.
Glaspell’s Trifles , which gives the double-bill its name and begins it, appears in every theatre school anthology 0 a mini-masterpiece of feminist agit-prop cleverly disguised as a 30-minute murder-mystery.
While a rural sheriff and cocky county attorney search the scene where a farmer was mysteriously found hanging, the sheriff’s wife (Kaylee Harwood) and a local woman (Julain Molnar) quietly solve the case while sorting through the lady of the house’s cupboards and quilting.
Trifles’ heavy-handed symbolism – a broken birdcage and tightly-sealed jar of cherries – foreshadows the expressionism of Glaspell’s later, larger-scale works like The Verge, but Western Canadian director Meg Roe here treats the play as gritty realism. Camellia Koo’s Gothic farmhouse setting gives the play some metaphysical space to breathe, however, while a hard-edged performance from Molnar carries it.
Glaspell’s script may be brilliant, but it is also biased – the men are almost comically cruel to the women, while the murder victim, a roughneck who mistreats his wife, is viewed without a shred of sympathy.
A Wife for a Life , O’Neill’s first attempt at drama, shines a different light on one such hard misogynist – a prospector played by Benedict Campbell. He rails against women, while his younger partner (Jeff Irving) pines over one far away. This playlet has traditionally been written off as juvenilia (by, among others, the playwright) – and indeed the plot’s unbelievable contrivances have the effect of making any in Trifles seem trifling.
Roe, however, treats the play with respect that eventually rubs off. Campbell gives a touching performance that melts your heart, even as the central coincidence causes laughter to ripple through the audience. It works as a tender rebuttal to the first half of this slight double-bill. It’s also a welcome reminder that you should never write off a dramatist based on a wonky first work – for all you know, The Iceman Cometh after.