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The Rez Sisters will be performed at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy until Aug. 21, in Stratford, Ont.

Stratford Festival i

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  • Title: The Rez Sisters
  • Written by: Tomson Highway
  • Director: Jessica Carmichael
  • Actors: Jani Lauzon, Tracey Nepinak and Nicole Joy-Fraser
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to August 21; will be filmed for Stratfest@Home

Critic’s Pick

On the ever-percolating subject of building back better, a suggestion for the Stratford Festival: Why not move the currently sold-out outdoors production of The Rez Sisters into the new Tom Patterson Theatre, or extend the run and do so later this summer? If that’s not pandemically possible, why not remount it next spring to properly open that gorgeous $70-million building?

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Jessica Carmichael’s lush production of Tomson Highway’s 1986 play – the most confident directorial debut at the festival in ages – simply deserves to be seen by a bigger audience, and there’s a bigger audience already on a waiting list to see it.

Truth be told, it was always a less-than-inspiring idea to open the Tom Patterson with Richard III, as was the plan for the cancelled 2020 season.

That Shakespeare play also opened Stratford’s original tent in 1953, and has been regularly trotted out to mark significant anniversaries here. But while the way this theatre company values its history is certainly part of its appeal – there’s also no reason it can’t continue to make actual history.

The Rez Sisters, which premiered in 1986 in Toronto, does so simply by its presence on the bill – but its appeal extends way beyond that.

The plot of this first in a cycle of plays that Highway set on the fictional Wasaychigan reserve on Manitoulin Island is simple: Seven Wasy (for short) women hear about a coming event called the Biggest Bingo in the World in Toronto and spring into action to fundraise for and plan their journey to attend.

It’s a collective quest, and Highway’s characters (and their mouths) are always motoring. In the cracks between the action, however, we learn of the trauma and triumphs and day-to-day lives of these women in conversations and cross-talk and occasional leaps into the non-naturalistic, aided and abetted by the trickster figure Nanabush (played with panache by Zach Running Coyote, the only male actor on stage).

Carmichael’s production is highly recommendable first and foremost owing to the fine performances, and the rich rapport built between two pairs of characters, in particular.

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Jani Lauzon as Pelajia Patchnose in The Rez Sisters.

Stratford Festival i

The first is Jani Lauzon’s Pelajia Patchnose and Tracey Nepinak’s Philomena Moosetail.

Pelajia begins the play fixing the roof of a house and talking about what she can actually see from up there – and what is unseeable but she knows is in the distance. (That seeing and knowing don’t have to go together is a theme with extra resonance right now.)

Philomena, meanwhile, is much more earth-bound in her concerns, worried mainly about where she will find her next bathroom. She has no interest in escaping her community, only in being able to buy and bring her dream toilet there.

Lauzon brings a great gravitas to Pelajia – a role she’s played before – and it anchors the entire production. But Nepinak’s Philomena brilliantly knocks her off her pedestal repeatedly with bawdy comedy – before segueing seamlessly into one of the first of many monologues that brought me to tears in the production.

Tracey Nepinak as Philomena Moosetail.

Stratford Festival i

Nicole Joy-Fraser as Annie Cook with members of the company in The Rez Sisters.

Stratford Festival i

The second impressive pairing here is Nicole Joy-Fraser’s Annie Cook, a singer obsessed with Patsy Cline and her daughter’s French-Canadian boyfriend, and Kathleen MacLean’s Emily Dictionary, a testier character who has a past filled with both domestic abuse and passionate romance.

Joy-Fraser brings joy to the stage in every moment she is on it as Annie – but her scenes opposite MacLean’s Emily are the ones with the most texture. The two really seem like lifelong frenemies, and the incredible intimacy conjured between them moved me time and time again.

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Rounding out the cast are Christine Frederick as Veronique St. Pierre and Brefny Caribou as her adopted daughter Zhaboonigan; the relationship there has yet to come into as sharp a focus as the others.

Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromarty) is the final “sister” on the rez, whose battle with cancer gives an overall arc to the show alongside the bingo quest.

Carmichael foregrounds this health struggle in her staging, which begins with Nanabush attached to medical materials and under a large sheet of semi-transparent plastic.

While it took me few scenes to fully fall under the spell of her overlapping worlds of straight-forward naturalism and stage metaphor, Carmichael’s vision really coalesces in the play’s fundraising scene – and from then on the production is never less than exquisite. There’s so much going on visually and aurally that I wish I could get a ticket to see it again.

It’s hard enough to put such a confident stamp on a show while allowing the actors to bring their individuality to parts and fostering a true collective cast feel in normal times. To do all three in a pandemic feels nothing short of miraculous.

The Rez Sisters’ clearest dramatic influence has always been Québecois playwright Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs, but what’s fun about seeing it at the Stratford Festival is how the play starts to converse with other classics.

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Pelajia’s yearning to leave behind the unpaved roads of Wasy and go to Toronto feels like a nod to those sisters of Anton Chekhov seen so often on the stages here.

Philomena’s scatological obsessions, meanwhile, now make you think of the characters of Molière and Ben Jonson. If you imagine it is somehow not in keeping with the Stratford aesthetic to manifest a bowel movement on stage, you obviously didn’t see artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s productions of The Hypochondriac and The Alchemist.

Everything about this Rez Sisters feels at home in Stratford – which is why I think it should be invited to move in.

Zach Running Coyote as Nanabush.

David Hou/Stratford Festival i

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.

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