DEEP INSIGHT AT HEART OF THEATRE CALGARY’S WORLD PREMIERE
The mother in Tara Beagan’s play Honour Beat always told her two daughters that home is wherever the three of them are together.
But home is now a small, sterile, palliative care room in a Toronto hospital. Mom (PaulaJean Prudat) is in a coma and near death.
Oldest daughter Anna-Rae (Monique Mojica) has flown in from a spiritual retreat in Sundance hours after the arrival of the younger daughter, Rae-Anna (Tracey Nepinak), who came from Vancouver.
Within minutes of the sisters’ reunion they begin arguing about why Mom was ever moved to Toronto, why she was moved to a hospice and about each other’s lifestyles. Through the argument, the audience learns, as Rae-Anna eventually concludes, these women may love each other but that doesn’t mean they actually like each other.
It is brittle, insightful distinctions like this that help give Beagan’s play a universal appeal despite its specific Indigenous roots. It’s easy to see oneself in these siblings regardless of race, culture or gender and in the issues that arise as the story progresses in its world premiere at Theatre Calgary.
Mom grew up in the Kamloops Residential School where she met and lost Anna-Rae’s father. Rae-Anna’s father died in a car accident that almost took Mom’s life as well.
Anna-Rae clings to the spirituality of her First Nations culture which she feels completes and enriches her life. She is more free-spirited and open as is reflected in her loose-fitting apparel. Mojica gives Anna-Rae
flowing, lilting speech patterns that complement her looks and demeanour.
On the flip side, Rae-Anna has tried to adapt to western culture and Nepinak portrays that conformity with more rigid attitudes and skittish mannerisms. She has turned to marijuana to calm herself. Where Mojica’s laughter and anger seem so natural and unhindered, Nepinak’s emotions feel more forced and restrained.
It must be a dream for directors and actors to work with Beagan’s script because she doesn’t just write dialogue. Beagan also writes images. The wonderful theatricality of Honour Beat is integral to its structure and director Michelle Thrush has exploited it beautifully, enriching the dialogue and story as was Beagan’s intent.
Though Mom is in her 80s and in a coma, Beagan has written the role for a young actress because Mom’s spirit is more alive at this moment than ever before. She knows she is dying so all her cares and earthly suffering is now behind her. She is eager to cross over. All she needs is for her daughters to be at her side.
Prudat as Mom is a marvel; dancing, singing and jumping about the stage seemingly defying gravity at times.
Beagan has structured the play so that Anna-Rae and Mom’s shared spirituality allows them to communicate fully. They embrace each other, laugh with each other and unburden their souls together. When Rae-Anna speaks to Mom, she always looks directly at the pillow where Mom’s head is although the spirit of Mom is beside her, behind her or sitting on the arm of her chair.
The fourth character in the play is Spanish (Bernard Starlight), a nurse practitioner whom Mom has chosen to be her final caregiver. It’s obvious that AnnaRae has a crush on him and that Rae-Anna disapproves.
Starlight is a big man so when Anna-Rae describes him as being cute it seems jarring until you watch him as Anna-Rae does and see how gentle, sweet, unassuming and caring he is. The child inside the man shines through, giving Mom and the audience hope that Anna-Rae will finally find a soulmate.
Another theatrical device that Beagan has woven into Honour Beat is to have two scenes play out simultaneously. When RaeAnna goes outside to smoke pot and Spanish follows, they talk while Anna-Rae and Mom converse. It’s tricky stuff to say the least, but it’s also dramatic.
Andy Moro’s set and projection designs add depth to Honour Beat. The hospital room sits in the centre of Theatre Calgary’s large stage with portions of the hospital on both sides. The room needs to be small and claustrophobic, but all that other space is not wasted. When Mom talks about the residential school, images of children playing or running down the halls fill the walls of the building and there are images of the car accident and a fire at the school as Mom recalls them.
The most creative use of projections occurs when Rae-Anna shows her sister a cellphone video she made with their mother earlier that year. The hospital room becomes a tea shop where the video was shot. Simultaneously we get to see the past and the present.
The final uplifting, spiritual moments of Honour Beat will linger with you long after you’ve left the Max Bell Theatre. With my Roman Catholic upbringing, I’ve seen many images of angels, but watching Prudat adorned in ceremonial robes returning to a pristine forest is one of the most beautiful.
Honour Beat is still in its early stages. The first act needs editing and some of the dialogue is too obvious and repetitive. There needs to be more tension between the sisters and the resolution of their animosity cannot be so easy, but these are minor flaws compared to the richness of story itself and the beautiful sentiments at the heart of the play.
Theatre Calgary’s Honour Beat, from left: Paula-Jean Prudat (Mom), Monique Mojica (Anna-Rae), and Tracey Nepinak (Rae-Anna).