All the ducks seem to have lined up so that Central Alberta Theatre could present the melodrama The Drunkard during Westerner Days this summer.
Just as David Laing was actively seeking a way to get more involved with the community theatre group after retiring from his planning position with Alberta Community Development, he noticed that CAT was looking for new ways to build membership and expand its audience.
The organization also needed to raise money to remove asbestos from the Memorial Centre.
“Here I was, in planning for the last 20 years, and I’m seeing all these things . . . I thought why aren’t we doing an old-fashioned melodrama in conjunction with the Westerner Days?” asked Laing, who believes such a production could make CAT some money, and potentially boost its audience and membership.
He put the idea of directing a summertime melodrama at the Memorial Centre forward and the theatre group jumped at it.
Laing said Westerner Days organizers were also thrilled to be able to promote this off-site event with previews of the melodrama running at the new Artistic Expressions Pavilion. “It seemed logical to have this as an added event during Westerner Days,” said Laing, who noted the Victorian play will tie in with the historic, pioneer theme of the fair.
Having staged several melodramas that ran during Klondike Days in Edmonton in the late 1960s and were a hit with audiences, Laing is hoping for a similar success with The Drunkard or . . . The Fallen Saved, which opens with the fair on July 14 and continues the week after, closing on July 24.
While this story has been called the most famous melodrama ever, it was originally written in “unproducable” form in 1844, with too many characters and settings. Laing is using a streamlined version rewritten by Canadian playwright Raymond Hull in the middle of the last century.
Laing sees this anti-alcohol play as a throwback to the abolitionist days of the early 1900s when Carrie A. Nation took her hatchet on a saloon-smashing campaign in the U.S. The extremist was part of a larger movement of women who believed alcohol destroyed families.
Like all good melodramas, The Drunkard has a heavily mustachio-ed villain, as well as a naive hero and a damsel in distress.
The plot involves dastardly lawyer Cribbs trying to win the affections of the innocent Mary in order to steal her property. To get the hero, Edward Middleton, out of the way, Cribbs and his henchman, Stickler, take him bar-hopping to turn him into a drunkard.
At one point, the hapless Mary is faced with the unenviable choice of marrying either the villain, who has money, or the hero, who is pie-eyed drunk.
That’s the scene Westerner Days fair-goers will see if they catch a preview of The Drunkard performed at the Artistic Expressions Pavilion. “The heroine has a terrible decision to make,” said a chuckling Laing, who hopes her dilemma will be enough of a cliff-hanger to draw preview audiences to the Memorial Centre to see the whole melodrama performed to music from the “Gay Nineties.”
He is also planning to have actors in the Westerner Days Parade.
When most theatre-goers think of melodrama, they think of the breast-beating, hand-to-forehead style of acting that was popular in vaudevillian times. But Laing thinks this would be too much for modern day audiences to put up with; “The play is two-dimensional enough . . .”
Instead, he’s encouraging his six-person cast to play it pretty straight — only taking things a little over-the-top whenever needed. “We really want it to be true to the period, and not turn it into a cartoon.”
At the same time, the audience will be encouraged to boo and hiss the villain and cheer the hero.
The straight approach is going over well, judging by the laughs each scene is generating, four weeks into the rehearsal process, said Laing, who added “some melodramas are too hokey, but this one is exceedingly well written.”
The Drunkard or . . . The Fallen Saved runs at 8 p.m. July 14-17 and 21-24 at the Memorial Centre. All tickets are $10 at the door (rush seats only).