Here she is, Miss Caledonia, and Melody A. Johnson’s one-woman play displays all the old-fashioned virtues that a pageant contestant ideally should: talent, inner beauty and especially charm. Forget the in-your-face crassness of Honey Boo Boo; here’s a winning show you’d take your grandmother or your granddaughter to in a wink.
Set in 1955, Miss Caledonia follows Peggy Ann Douglas on her quest to win the illustrious title of Miss Hunter and Angler. For this Ontario farm girl – named after and based on Johnson’s real-life mother – beauty pageants are a potential way out of a rural rut. Hers is a chore-filled life with a hard-edged father stuck in his ways, even as they produce diminishing returns, and a mother who dreams of indoor plumbing, planting a ginseng crop, and bigger things for her daughter.
Peggy Ann’s role model is Singin’ in the Rain star Debbie Reynolds, who got a contract with Warner Bros. after winning a Burbank beauty contest. But if she’s going to get anywhere near her idol Bing Crosby, who sings at her with sophistication from a glossy photo pasted above her bed, she’s going to have to first get past a variety of obstacles – financial and fatherly, as well her own lack of natural finesse.
Johnson’s writing is studded with folksy stock characters – a farmhand with a speech impediment; a harsh Scottish schoolmistress. The situations her heroine finds herself in aren’t exactly fresh either, whether counting out a 100-word composition word by word or walking around with books on her head at finishing school.
In this case, however, familiarity breeds contentment. Stuart McLean and Dan Needles didn’t get rich by straying too far off the mildly satirical path of gently comic Canadiana paved by Stephen Leacock. Fans of The Vinyl Café and Wingfield will certainly enjoy the brand of storytelling here: little-town sketches filtered through a female perspective.
The key ingredient is Johnson’s engagingly quirky stage presence. Dressed in jeans, a plaid shirt and a low-level sense of anxiety, she’s always just slightly off the beat, in a pleasing way, like a jazz musician riffing on a well-known tune.
Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis are both credited as directors, but the vision doesn’t seem bifurcated. This is minimalist solo territory, designed to tour with a bench and that’s about it. (In the spring, Johnson is taking the show on the road to Rossland, B.C.; St. Albert, Alta.; St. Thomas and Guelph, Ont.; and the National Arts Centre.)
The actress draws her surroundings with her hands, easily conjuring a pack of needy farm dogs or a fantasy bathroom swim. Her portrayals of her male characters appear in strong, clear strokes, though it’s sometimes tricky to distinguish between the female characters – especially when they get into a conversation with each other.
There aren’t exactly any twists on Peggy Ann’s road where you’re ever likely to get lost, however.
Oh, I called it a one-woman play, but Johnson is joined onstage by a female fiddler, Alison Porter, who underscores certain passages and who occasionally provides sound effects by plucking on her strings. It’s a testament to her talent that she fits in so neatly and unnoticed.
Johnson does a fine job of plucking on some strings of her own. She knows how to play this tune just right and end on a touching note.