Long before Calgary playwright John Murrell started writing operas, his work was already headed in the direction of the operatic. Farther West, which first premiered at Theatre Calgary in 1982, aims to lift the bare-bones biography of a little-known pioneer prostitute named May Buchanan up into the larger-than-life. Her yearning for maximum independence and freedom has an intensity and an urgency to it that makes it seem mythic.
May first appears delivering one of the best opening monologues in Canadian drama. We discover her listing off lovers, while in bed with a much older john in Rat Portage (now the much less lyrical Kenora), from “a German boy from Berlin, Ontario” to “a drill master from the military academy in Hull”. Like a hooker Hank Snow, she’s been everywhere, man – and she’s only just beginning.
In this opening, unsung aria, May also outlines her origins – the tale she tells herself, and her clients at least. When her father first found her in bed with a man, he didn’t gnash his teeth or tear his hair or cry “like they do in storybooks”. Neither did May play the part: “[I] don’t whimper nor run howling down the hall. Christ knows, I don’t fall at his feet to ask forgiveness.”
Instead, May’s old man tells her: “You better move on, girl, best start moving, farther west.” If young men who break the rules are told to go west, young women who break them must go even farther. When we meet her, May is in the midst of following this advice, and she keeps packing up her valise and moving along, until she finds herself, at the end of the play, pushed out into the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat to continue her western journey into death.
In the premiere production, Martha Henry played May Buchanan – and the snoozing john was played by William Webster. In Diana Leblanc’s revival for Soulpepper, Tara Nicodemo takes on the role of May – and, in a nice nod to continuity, it’s still Webster in bed next to her.
Farther West follows an episodic epic structure that recalls Brecht with occasional outbursts of violent plot. Most of it takes place in Calgary, where at the end of the 19th century, May turns from prostitute to madam and takes care of prostitutes from sick Lily (Akosua Amo-Adem), aging Violet (Kyra Harper) and simple Nettie (Christine Horne).
On the ranching frontiers, the North-West Mounted Police tolerated prostitution due to men vastly outnumbering women in the territories – so May has no lack of customers, many of whom fall in love with her.
Two of these hound her with the persistence of Inspector Javert, their good intentions curdling into obsession. The first is Constable Seward (a misguided Dan Lett) who is torn between his spiritual repulsion of and physical attraction to May. Second is Thomas Shepherd (played by Matthew MacFadzean with the burning passion the whole production needs) a settler who wants to take her down to his farm as his wife.
But while May seems fond of Shepherd, she resists being settled. Even under the beautiful, big skies that Nettie keeps pointing out, she feels suffocated by what men call love. Murrell, who for the most part seems in admiration of his creation’s desire to stay free of all male attachment, sees a nobility in the need to keep moving. But a few decades on from Working Girl-era feminism, I can’t see it as empowering. Instead, there’s something in May, and her heightened working-class language, that reminds me of Eugene O’Neill’s pipe-dream pursuers. (There’s something about her relentless restlessness that also reminds me of Ms. Oddi in Sheila Heti’s satire, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. )
Farther West is a tough play with a musical structure and unwieldy poetry, and Leblanc’s revival is a truly puzzling patchwork of styles. Her onstage world flits uneasily between the abstract and the concrete. But when it goes for the metaphorical, it dissolves into mush, and when it aims for realism, it seems puny and even corny. Paul Humphrey’s sound design increases the dissonant divide – half the time it sounds like an old-timey CBC documentary, the other half it’s all ominous rumbles.
A large cast is wasted by having actors of the calibre of Evan Buliung, Jeff Lillico and Dan Chameroy walk on for what are essentially cameos, when they could be used to increase May’s sense of claustrophobia. Few of the actors in major roles here – MacFadzean and Harper excluded – seem properly cast. And Nicodemo keeps her passion too subdued, her swagger too superficial. I’m glad to see it revived, but this is a Farther West that simply doesn’t go far enough.