Sarah Crowell stars as suffragist Francis Beynon and Joey Yazer as her editor George McNair in The Fighting Days, on stage to April 13 at the Sawmill Playhouse, Dartmouth. (Bruce Goodick)
The comical tag-team announcing The Fighting Days proudly tells people they are about to see a Canadian story by a writer who is not only Canadian but lives in Dartmouth.
Wendy Lill’s The Fighting Days, in a Dartmouth Players’ production at the Sawmill Playhouse to April 13, is an historical drama about the tense, ultimately unravelling, relationship between suffragists Nellie McClung and Francis Beynon in Winnipeg from 1910 to 1917.
It’s fascinating to be introduced to the play’s heroine, the lesser-known Beynon, a Winnipeg journalist and activist from farm country.
Always gifted at coming at issues from many different angles to mirror the complexity of life, Lill in The Fighting Days uncannily presages key themes of today.
This play – first published in 1985 and produced by Eastern Front Theatre in 2004 – is more than a herstory. It has universal themes of the courage of conviction, fear of the other, intolerance and pacifism versus militarism.
Gisela O’Brien directs a lively, two-hour production with fine performances in the leads, great period costumes and an elegant set of arched windows.
At first The Fighting Days is all fun – like a fiesty Katharine Hepburn lady-reporter film. Francis Beynon, brought to life in an accomplished, well-arced performance by Sarah Cromwell, arrives in Winnipeg to join her sister, journalist Lily Beynon, and meets Nellie McClung. The shy but highly principled and idealistic Francis is immediately drawn to McClung’s ideas.
After Francis talks her lovable, crusty editor McNair into a job as a homemaker’s page columnist her views become less about stain removal and more about politics.
Once the vote is won, Lill delves into the thorny, grey-area issues that still plague people. With conscription looming and McNair offering domestic peace, Beynon must choose between her ideals and her relationships.
Women march for the vote in Manitoba – the first province to get the vote in 1916 – in The Fighting Days. (Bruce Goodick)
Director O’Brien is skilled at getting strong performances out of her cast, at creating a swift pace and at filling up a small space with a women’s march and a suite of opinionated letter writers played by Britt Curran, Sandi Montgomery, Catherine Conrad and Sharon MacVicar.
Heather MacPherson as Lily Beynon is vivid and compelling, while Joey Yazer creates an appealing, complex character in the tartan-clad McNair. Rachel Franco’s performance of McClung is charged and radiant.
This production benefits from a good, unified design team with costume design by Pam Wood, lighting design by Richard Bonner, music composition by Ralph Walton-Bone Urquhart and set design by Sandi Siversky.
The Fighting Days is also timely, as O’Brien points out in the program, because women still fight in North America and globally for women’s rights. (All of Amnesty International’s cases for last December’s global, human rights. letter-writing campaign involved women activists.)
The play runs to April 13 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., with a Sunday, April 7, matinee 2 p.m., in the playhouse (dartmouthplayers.ns.ca) at 33 Crichton Ave. across from Sullivan’s Pond. Parking is in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Church and Churchill Academy with on-street parking on one side of Crichton Avenue.
Sarah Crowell as Francis Beynon, Heather MacPherson as Lily Beynon and Rachel Franco as Nellie McClung. (Bruce Goodick)