There were three people in Jennie Hawkes’ marriage — at least at last count.
Poor, prim and proper Jennie. Pulled out of university by her father, was given in marriage to a serial philanderer — the suave and rather facile lawyer Wilfred Hawkes.
Given the social constraints of Wetaskiwin in 1915, Jennie could do little but watch in growing shame as Wilfred’s lust for young maids turns into a full-blown, on-going dalliance with voluptuous hussy, Rosella Stoley, who lives in a separate residence in the same house.
The public and private aspects of the Hawkes’ stifling, turn-of-the-last century marriage are explored in fascinating detail in the latest Prime Stock Theatre production, Thy Neighbour’s Wife, which opened Thursday at the Scott Block in downtown Red Deer.
This award-winning play by Red Deer College alumni and Innisfail native Tara Beagan is based on an actual court case that played out in the earliest years of this province.
With a brazen ‘other woman’ constantly sneaking into Jennie’s house through the adjoining pantry and throwing her indiscrete affair with her husband in her face, Jennie takes drastic action to end her public humiliation — she guns Rosella down in cold blood and becomes the first woman sentenced to hang in the province.
This well executed, highly entertaining production of Thy Neighbour’s Wife, directed by Lynda Adams, has it all — a plot line about lascivious sex and jealously, a witty and socially relevant script about gender bias, some well-placed laughs, and a perfect quartet of actors who bring to life a disfunctional marriage from Alberta’s pioneering past.
There’s even a fiddler, Marcelle Nokony, to add atmosphere and heighten tension with folkloric playing.
This play won Canada’s highest theatre recognition — a Dora Mavor Moore Award — after opening in Toronto in 2004, and it’s easy to see why. The script is intelligent and the characters well drawn. While the plot arguably lacks a true climax, this two-act play never squanders the audience’s interest. Adams does a great job of pacing this production.
All three female characters — Jennie, Rosella, and the Hawkes’ Irish maid Aisling Corrigan, who acts as narrator, are each in their own way, smart and powerful, yet completely under Wilfred’s thumb.
Jennie, played by Lori Ravensborg, is trapped in a toxic marriage because it was extremely difficult for wives to initiate divorce proceedings. Rosella (Jennifer Tibo) clings to feckless Wilfred because her sordid past and forced marriage to a man three times her age have made her desperate and needy. Aisling (Lisa Heinrichs) tolerates his inappropriate advances because she needed the employment.
The three female actors, all RDC grads, deliver engaging performances: Heinrichs pulls off an Irish accent and creates an amiable, humane character who’s really the heart of this play; Ravensborg’s Jennie is a do-gooder who makes bandages for First World War soldiers and attends temperance union meetings, but is all about disappointment and unfulfilled ambition.
Even temptress Rosella wins our empathy because of the vulnerability that Tibo exposes, in brief glimpses.
If there’s a villain here, it’s the establishment.
In one scene, the condescending Wilfred, glibbly played by Scott Black, is revealed to have developed his off-kilter ideas about marriage from the prevailing notion that men’s carnal desires shouldn’t be foisted on their wives.
The timber-framed set, designed by the playwright’s brother, Patrick Beagan, evokes the slapped up newness of this province in 1915. And the costumes, by Selena Percy, add authenticity.
Thy Neighbour’s Wife opens an intriguing window on our collective past — it’s a must-see evening of theatre for anyone who enjoys a good domestic drama.
The play runs to April 4 and then April 7-11 at Scott Block Theatre at 4817-50 Ave. Red Deer.