In 1915, Jennie Hawkes became the first woman sentenced to hang in Alberta for killing her husband’s not-so-secret lover.
That Jennie’s husband was a serial philanderer was known by at least some residents of their hometown of Wetaskiwin.
But few people could have imagined that Wilfred Hawkes’s stoic wife, Jennie, so well respected for her volunteerism with the Red Cross and local temperance union, would eventually snap at the end of her emotional tether and gun down vivacious neighbour Rosella Stoley.
The main facts depicted in Prime Stock Theatre’s production of Thy Neighbour’s Wife, by Tara Beagan, are historically accurate. The play opens on Thursday at Scott Block Theatre in downtown Red Deer.
This includes mention of the hole in the pantry wall that Wilfred created to enable swift access to his paramour, who lived with her older husband in a separate residence immediately next door.
Wilfred’s infidelity became so flagrant that, while the First World War raged elsewhere in the world, Jennie felt forced to take her own stand at home to restore her damaged dignity.
She was eventually sentenced to hang by an all-male jury — but the verdict was roundly criticized at the time.
As one Saskatchewan housewife put it, “I would have done the same thing,” had her husband strayed.
Other dissenting voices, which were mostly female, argued that the spurned Jennie “had fired a shot in the defence of decency” and should not be so harshly punished.
Jennie’s supporters included suffragette reformer Emily Murphy, who pointed to similar cases in which men were acquitted — including a 1914 case involving a British Columbia man who was seen as “defending the decency of his home” by killing his wife’s lover.
Red Deer director Lynda Adams said she chose to stage this Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning play by Red Deer College alumni Beagan because she found it intriguing: Jennie was not only caught within the social confines of an Edwardian marriage, but also the double standards of a justice system that did not yet recognize women as legal persons.
Adams noted the play not only features a pot-boiler of a plot, which starts when Jenny starts finding unfamiliar pieces of women’s lingerie around her house, but offers an examination of how females were treated with bias by Alberta’s courts.
“While this play is a historical drama, it’s been given a post-modern treatment.”
One challenge was directing “split-scenes” in which one actor must interact both with someone in the present as well as someone from the past, or future, in a totally different scene being staged simultaneously. Adams said she intends to use lighting and staging tricks to make the various timelines clear to the audience.
Three of the cast members are RDC graduates: Lisa Heinrich, who plays Aisling, an Irish maid in the Hawkes household who acts as the story’s narrator; Lori Ravensborg, as Jennie; and Jennifer Tibo as Rosella. Scott Black, a local Vancouver film school grad, plays Wilfred.
As the play requires atmospheric music to underscore the tumultuous emotions of some scenes, Adams said fiddler Marcelle Nakony will play improvised melodies to set the mood.
Adams, who saw a production of Thy Neighbour’s Wife in Calgary, admitted she was also drawn to this character-driven play because of its Central Alberta setting. “It’s very much about something that happened in our neighbourhood.”