Despite being far from the beaten path, cultural dynamics, probably familiar to most people who have ever worked among or with others, flare up in a most calculated way in the latter days of pre-war Australia.
Set in the Easthaven Girls’ High School staff room in Broken Hill, a small dot of an Outback mining town in New South Wales, about as far north as the state goes, mud is quickly tossed about.
Getting the most of it on their wonderfully designed period costumes – a superior effort by Agatha Knelsen – are three teachers, Misses Gwyn Carwithen and Margaret Sole along with Mrs. Macneil, impressively portrayed by Kiera Publicover, Juli Docherty and Michelle Blight respectively.
The trio are standing up for romance and the outlier Mary Grey. Grey, by creating what becomes a significant scandal, is the subject of considerable discourse a lot of it not all that nice. Although she is often talked about, she is never seen. She did, however, break with the mores of the time by having the temerity to kiss her boyfriend at a school function, in this case a dance.
That such an innocent, youthful act would result in pitting teachers against each other needs to be explained. The times are much different in 1939 Australia, as they were in North America at the same time. Much of this is a bit of a cultural shock to the actors. All, by the way, do a wonderful job of speaking with an Australian accent.
Katy Chapman, in the role of stiff upper lipped deputy head Miss Portia Kingsbury, a role she executes with marvellous dignity in the face of an audience most likely finding her steadfastness even amusing, is actually accused by one of her charges as being the epicentre of evil.
Chapman, given the situation, sides with complacency. It is, she tells Eyes on Windsor, the right thing to do if only to preserve the standing of society as it is. Much of the play revolves around the measures she takes to maintain law and order and proper etiquette with disastrous results. Her overbearing efforts immediately puts her at odds with the progressive three and leads to a most involved drama in which the actors are not actually acting out roles based on their unique personalities but rather on the rigidness of how they are supposed to live their lives.
Kissing at a dance was, Chapman revealed, nothing less than complete culture shock for her and her fellow actors, all University of Windsor Bachelor of Fine Arts students. The actors spent considerable time researching Broken Hill’s nuances and the lifestyles of its occupants. What they found was a community in the dark ages of the middle of the past Century. One of the surprises is the fact most of the teachers remain unmarried simply for career purposes. Marriage, at the time meant immediate dismissal so the women could take up their places in the home.
This situation causes the spirited Carwithen to offer a considerable lament about the longevity of her relationship with her beau without him putting a ring on it. Author Dymphna Cusack uses her frustrations to fully explain the circumstances facing teachers at the time. She talks from considerable personal experience, having been a teacher herself in the same period.
The ending, which might be a shock for the audience, shows how ingrained life was back in the day and the efforts taken to maintain the status quo. It is very enlightening and, in a pure march of time, displays the monumental progress society has made in only 70 years. That alone, makes for a very satisfying evening topped off with exceptional acting of a well-written script.
One outstanding aspect of the production has to be the attention to detail by Scenic Designer David Court and Scenic Artist Nancy Perrin. Although few in the audience will have lived in 1939 Australia, many will no doubt have watched movies from the period and will certainly appreciate the superb effort of Court and Perrin right down to the props, including fountain pens.
The drama is directed by award-winning Sarah Kitz, whose theatrical accomplishments are as detailed as the set.
“Playwright Dymphna Cusack refers to the women in this show as second-class citizens,” says director Sarah Kitz, “In addition to the traps that these women face, still familiar to so many of us – economic hardship, social respectability politics, gendered double standards – she points at the high cost of in-group fighting rather than solidarity in an oppressed class. In our contemporary take on this period drama, we are including a modern perspective which underlines the cost of performing old oppressions as a way of keeping them alive and well.”
Morning Sacrifice opens this Friday with an 8pm performance in the intimate Hatch Studio Theatre. Performances on February 28, 29, March 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8, 2020. Tickets can be purchased at www.universityplayers.com or by calling the box office at 519-253-3000 x2808. Regular price tickets start at $19.
Article by Robert Tuomi
For over a decade, Robert has covered local news and community events. Initially as a contributor to CBC Radio’s local morning show and then as the long-time producer and host of CJAM’s The Rest of the News and as a journalist at the Windsor Square. A graduate of the Nikon School of Photography he enjoys illustrating his reports with what he sees through his camera’s lens.