Four performances remain of The Pearl Company’s run of My Father’s House, a troubling, emotional play based on Canadian writer Sylvia Fraser’s book, adapted by Hamilton playwright Brian Morton. Gary Santucci directs the cast, made up of Lisa Langlois, Claire Shingleton-Smith, Keegan Chambers, and Joshua Perry Fleming.
My Father’s House is Fraser’s sixth book, a 1987 memoir that came out 15 years after her first novel, Pandora, considered its fictionalized ‘prequel.’ Long before the #MeToo movement, My Father’s House exposed the secretive crime of childhood sexual abuse, and the struggle to overcome and heal from its devastation. Since its publication, it has become a valued text for scholars and lauded for its portrayal of survivors of trauma. The book won a Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
In a note from Sylvia Fraser in the program, she writes that as a society we’ve gradually awakened to the fact that sexual abuse is a crime “cutting across barriers of wealth, education, religion, and prominence.” And so, flashed up on the back wall of the stage we see a projection of a regular Hamilton house on a regular Hamilton street in the 1940’s and 50’s, populated by a respectable family led by an upstanding, hardworking, Christian patriarch who “neither smoked nor drank.” On his death, Sylvia must somehow navigate an impossible chasm, the psychological disconnect between the pillar of the community the minister eulogized with the man whose assaults drove her to disassociate and repress memories so deeply it took years to unravel.
For, as Fraser writes, “...the predators weren’t just perverts who hung around parks, but trusted coaches, doctors, teachers, counsellors, ministers and priests, who groomed, seduced, raped, and sodomized.” Where ‘The Child Who Knows’ (Sylvia’s much younger self, played by Claire Shingleton–Smith) should have been safest, she was most at risk. So we learn with the girl to listen with racing hearts for footsteps on the stairs, or the turning of a key. We witness with revulsion as the girl distracts herself with the counting of pennies or chocolate chips in a cookie, or notes that the scrollwork on her father’s headboard reminds her of her mother’s lips. It’s a breathless moment when her older self admits that, until his death, she never crossed the threshold of her childhood home without fear.
Scenes of abuse are simulated and recounted by Shingleton–Smith and Keegan Chambers (who plays Sylvia as a teenager and younger woman) and, unsurprisingly, they are uncomfortable, riveting, and full of dread. Both, especially Shingleton–Smith, are adept at using body language and positioning to evoke the confusion, revulsion, and vulnerability of the child and later, ‘The Princess.’ Unseen, and heard only from offstage (voiced by Joshua Perry Fleming), her father nevertheless leans a sick, sinister weight over the scenes and Sylvia’s life.
The girl’s mother (Langlois) is shown as something of an accomplice, in that her hypervigilance over her daughter’s conduct, and her misogynist (though era appropriate) ideas about morality help keep her daughter silent and trapped. Once outside the house, she is still unsafe, vulnerable to what we’d now call ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘rape culture’ perpetuated by (young) men. It’s an anxiety girls and women still learn to ‘live with.’ I imagine anyone who has experienced abuse, particularly sexual violence, will want to go in prepared for the trauma this play might trigger.
It’s a solid play. While it falls short of being a ‘transcendent’ theatrical experience, it has moments of power. Though she fumbles a few lines, Lisa Langlois has a wonderfully warm, measured tone to her voice as she narrates; it’s the voice of a woman who has made some degree of peace with herself. The three actors playing Sylvia at different points in her life (or, perhaps more accurately, facets of her psyche) are capable, smoothly coordinated, and recognizable as people we might know. While the character of the husband seems a bit two dimensional, there’s a poignant moment for Fleming when we see him, as a new beau, embrace Sylvia (Chambers) as a good hearted man she can finally, reliably trust. In Act One, a collection of images are projected to help ‘set the scene’; while some of them are evocative, I would argue others unnecessarily telegraph certain elements instead of trusting in the viewers’ imaginations (or memories).
As a final note, in addition to her return to the stage with this play, Lisa Langlois is currently involved in developing Fraser’s book, along with its prequel, Pandora, for film. V
My Father’s House
The Pearl Company
16 Steven St., Hamilton
Continues Thursday, June 6 - Saturday, June 8, 8 PM
and Sunday, June 9, 2 PM (matinee)
$20 / $15 (students, seniors, un(der)waged)
Tickets at the door, or online: ticketscene.ca