A fam­ily strug­gles to break free in PTE opener The Brink

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

IT’S 1969 and as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong is about to make one gi­ant leap for mankind on the moon while back on earth a young woman is un­able to take one step to­wards a real life

Pat is the well-mean­ing cen­tral char­ac­ter of the lik­able Ellen Peter­son fam­ily drama The Brink, which is hav­ing its pre­mière at 40-yearold Prairie The­atre Ex­change. The 27-year-old is as boxed in as the reams of pa­per and en­velopes piled all over the dingy base­ment work/ stor­age area of her un­cle’s print­ing busi­ness. Her late grand­mother Lil­lian, who bought Chip­pawa Box and Pa­per, went over Ni­a­gara Falls in a bar­rell and her un­cle Jim went over­seas to war but Pat has never gone any­where. She hasn’t even been to Toronto two hours down the road.

The com­pelling heart of The Brink is the plight of three gen­er­a­tions of women in this fam­ily. While most of the ac­tion takes place over a cou­ple of months in the sum­mer of ’69, there are flash­backs to Lil­lian speak­ing to a gath­er­ing of the Daugh­ters of Loy­alty af­ter she be­came the first per­son to go over the falls in a bar­rel in 1918 and to the Ja­panese POW camp in Tokyo where Jim, an Olympics-cal­i­bre pole vaulter, was barely sur­viv­ing mal­nu­tri­tion and mis­treat­ment.

The print­ing is on the wall for Chip­pawa Box and Pa­per as Xerox ma­chines and au­to­mated com­peti­tors cut into its busi­ness. The com­pany is over­drawn at the bank, trig­ger­ing talk be­tween Pat, her mother Shirley and Jim about clos­ing up shop. The un­ful­filled Shirley is anx­ious to get away and at last taste the good life in Florida for a fi­nal blowout. A sud­den and un­ex­pected huge or­der from the city of Ni­a­gara Falls looks like it could save the day. A U.S. draft dodger named Terry is taken in to help out.

Much of the two-hour PTE sea­sonopener in­volves watch­ing the four char­ac­ters push­ing pa­per from one box to the next. It’s a dreary life for the du­ti­ful Pat. The un­lik­able Shirley — Jan Skene in top form — is a cranky, un­sat­is­fied pill. Jim (Steven Rat­zlaff per­fectly cast) is a dod­der­ing, good­hearted vet­eran prone to al­low­ing ty­pos like “Lord Goo Almighty” get printed in a church bul­letin. The cat­a­lyst Terry (Evan Hall) opens Pat’s eyes to break­ing free from fam­ily and so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions.

Es­cape is an ever present state of mind for the char­ac­ters of The Brink, di­rected by di­rec­tor Robert Met­calfe as if the play is an ex­tended count­down. Each is, or has been, con­fined. Prairie The­atre Ex­change To Oct. 28 Tick­ets: $25-$47

½ out of five

Lil­lian, played with com­mend­able grav­i­tas by Me­gan McAr­ton, had her bar­rel, but even more re­strict­ing were the con­straints of towns­peo­ple who didn’t watch her go over the falls to cel­e­brate her au­da­cious feat but to see her fail for such ill-con­ceived dar­ing. Her rous­ing Act 2 speech ends with, “The fact re­mains that it is a dan­ger­ous and un­kind world, es­pe­cially for a woman.” It drew spon­ta­neous ap­plause, rare in mid-scene from au­di­ence mem­bers who think that’s still the case.

Jim is still cap­tive to the ef­fects of his prison stay while Shirley never had the life she en­vi­sioned be­fore be­com­ing a se­cret sin­gle mother in a dis­ap­prov­ing world. Terry is trapped in Canada and can’t go home with­out be­ing sent to fight in Viet­nam or to the stock­ade for 20 years.

Robyn Slade im­presses by com­mu­ni­cat­ing not only Pat’s des­per­a­tion to save the com­pany but her vul­ner­a­bil­ity as an in­ex­pli­ca­ble loner who has never taken the plunge into the out­side world. Wa­ter is a re­cur­ring theme in The Brink, with Pat fre­quently on a bridge over a lo­cal swim­ming hole un­able to jump.

De­spite its his­toric set­ting, Peter­son’s story is rel­a­tively small and sim­ple, mak­ing the point that the times we live in steer our choices. The irony is that not ev­ery­one wants to be saved.

Peter­son shows she be­longs on a main­stage but her first full-length script could use a bit of work. Pri­mar­ily, the scenes of Jim and his prison pal Guy in the POW camp don’t fit very snugly with the rest of ac­tion and al­most feel like they are part of an­other play, which it will be in the play­wright’s planned Chip­pawa Tril­ogy. It is also hard to be­lieve that Pat can be so un­af­fected by grow­ing up in the times-they-are-a-changin’ ’60s. She doesn’t even have a record player to lis­ten to Terry’s gift of a Joni Mitchell al­bum.

The Brink ends on July 21, 1969, the day Arm­strong first set foot on the moon. Ev­ery baby boomer knows where they were that day. Pat re­mem­bers that date, too, for her less her­alded, but per­son­ally more sig­nif­i­cant, gi­ant leap.


Rat­zlaff is per­fectly cast as a dod­der­ing, good-hearted vet­eran prone to al­low­ing ty­pos to get printed in the church bul­letin.

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