Presentation House Theatre

The Dunsmuirs:
Alone at the Edge
by Rod Langley

Dates 5-20 October 2007@20.00 Venue Presentation House, North Vancouver

Director Bill Devine Lighting Michael Schaldemose Sets Gary and Lynda Chu Costumes Sandy Buck Sound Daniel Deorksen and Varya Rubin Stage Manager Colleen Totten

Reviewer Jane Penistan

Local Canadian history comes to life at Presentation House Theatre with Sea Theatre’s production of The Dunsmuirs: Alone at the Edge. The harsh and comfortless lives of the immigrant families of the mid-nineteenth century are difficult to imagined today. How hard everyone had to work to stay alive!

The magnificence of the well-preserved Craig Darroch Castle is difficult to equate with the possessions of an impoverished immigrant Scottish miner of 150 years ago. Yet this was the dream of the irascible, bullying, hard--working and far-seeing Robert Dunsmuir. It was to salve his conscience as his gift to his long-suffering but iron-willed wife Joan. This play presents the early struggling life of Robert Dunsmuir and some of his family.

The set is that of the main room of the family’s small house. Here Joan (Lee Van Paassen) prepares meals and launders the clothes, Alex (Daniel Arnold) sneaks his father’s whisky and seduces his brother’s girl friend Susan (Cat Main), and the miners, Robert (Duncan Fraser) and his son James (Mike Wasko) wash themselves from the coal dust and mud of their employment. Here too family quarrels and arguments erupt, visitors are entertained, business is transacted, and seduction is practised. In moments of disagreement there are fights, in times of celebrations, music and dancing.

In the turbulent early years of the Canadian mining industry, life was always uncertain. When Robert succeeded in managing and later owning mines there was always the uncertainty of where the money would come from to pay the wages or the bills or where he could raise the capital to expand his business.

When all seems lost and Dunsmuir can see no way to repay his business partner, the suave and steely Mr. Diggle (William Samples}, it is Joan who comes to rescue, who buys time to repay the shareholder and who defends her husbands honour as a business man. It is Joan who oversees the books and takes over some of the running of the business, which Alex neglects, Joan who nurses her half dead James back to health and comforts the fiery Robert in his depths of despair.

When things are going well Robert has his dream that one day he will build a castle and the family will live like the lairds of his native Scotland. This is the reason for his parsimony to his family and the low wages paid to his mine workers. The workers strike and riot, all debts are called in, the Dunsmuirs are bankrupt, and all seems as lost as Robert’s castle in the air as the play ends.

There are exceptional performances in this well written, well directed legendary drama. As usual, Duncan Fraser gives a polished, well timed, well delivered, and authoritative performance, really the leading man in this talented company. Lee Van Paassen’s Joan could not be bettered. William Sample's dual roles of the sophisticated and aristocratic Diggle and the inebriated neighbour, Jock Hamilton, are a brilliant contrast in character, manner, and personality.

The boys, Alex and James, are like many brothers, opposite in character and physicality. This is markedly so in these two well presented roles. Mike Wasko, James, also plays a gentleman’s gentleman with all the deference and poise of an upper servant, and is the unseen voice of the leader of the striking rioters. Cat Main, who recently graduated from Studio 58, gives a charming, intelligent performance as James’s girlfriend, Susan Hamilton, pursued by the taunting brother, Alex, and ultimately faithful to James.

This production has everything going for it – an excellent script, inspired direction, and splendid acting throughout. I hope there is a sequel and that it will be performed by this same star-studded company.

© 2007 Jane Penistan