There was a time when armies of rootless young men camped outside of cities after failing to find work that paid a dollar a day.
Some women, meanwhile, worked too many hours for too little wages in downtown sweatshops.
And children, when not idealized on the silver screen by Shirley Temple, would often get sick from diseases exacerbated by malnutrition.
That time and place — Canada in the 1930s — is being brought to life with great compassion and insight in Ten Lost Years. It’s a fascinating play based on real-life stories of the Great Depression, presented by Red Deer College Theatre Studies students.
Watching a recent dress rehearsal of this absorbing, music-laced show that opens tonight at City Centre Stage in downtown Red Deer, was like opening a history book and watching real people step out from the past.
Thanks to the talented young cast of actors who portray multiple roles, these folks from a bygone age will sit down and tell you a thing or two, in their own vernacular, about how life was back then.
I was surprised by some of the stories in this production, directed by Thomas Bradshaw — and amazed by what this tough generation of survivors went through.
The tales that are spread out (like the proverbial feast hardly anyone could afford in that lean decade) are often sad — but will also make you smile or even laugh out loud.
There’s the story about the mom who became a virtual knitting machine after hearing that her daughter’s schoolmate had knuckles that were cracked and bleeding because her family couldn’t afford to buy her mittens.
There’s the Eaton’s store worker who dreams of giving expensive Shirley Temple dolls away to all the poor little girls who stare at them fruitlessly, knowing their families can barely afford to buy milk or bread.
There are the electronics geeks (yes, they did exist in the 1930s) who get radio envy when a neighbour somehow manages to purchase a $300 model that can pick up stations from New York.
There’s the hapless family that sets out to farm free land in Northern Alberta that’s drought-free, but plagued by swarms of mosquitoes.
And there are all the jobless skilled and educated people who were reduced to weeding dandelions to stay on the dole.
It seems that shame was the price a lot of people had to pay in order to feed their families.
This well-paced production is chock-full of engaging anecdotes. Adapted by Jack Windert and Cedric Smith from Barry Broadfoot’s oral history book, Ten Lost Years — 1920-1939, the play is what Canadian school textbooks should be like but sadly aren’t.
Bradshaw does a great job of staging the multiple story lines that are regularly broken up with music — songs from the era, such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, When The Saints Go Marching In and May the Circle Be Unbroken.
Since the music is usually joyful, it often pulls you back from the emotional brink. But as sad as some of these stories are, it’s important to remember they are being told by survivors — and their resiliency is something to celebrate.
Kudos to every member of the cast: Pharaoh Amnesty, Brock Beal, Kassidee Campbell, Emily Cupples, Richie Jackson, Robyn Jeffrey, Damon Lutz, Evan Macleod, Michael Moore, Rina Pelletier, Erin Pettifor, Nate Rehman, Emily Seymour, Warren Stephens, Megan Sweet and Katherine Walker.
The production team also well captured the look of the 1930s in the costume and sets. Ten Lost Years is absolutely worth seeing.
It’s the kind of history lesson you’ll be glad to learn.
The show runs through Saturday at City Centre Stage, with perforamnces at 7:30 p.m. each evening and a 1 p.m. Saturday matinee.
Tickets are $21.20 ($17.20 students/seniors) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.