I was happy to see at least two other women crying at the end of Schoolhouse at Two Planks and a Passion Theatre.
Leanna Brodie’s play, staged outdoors till Sept. 4 at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, is full of comedy and the high spirits and hijinks of children. However, it has a poignant story at its core that left me thinking, “Why is there no Kleenex in my pocket? Can I use my mask? Do people do that?”
Schoolhouse is a rural Canadian story that perfectly suits the gorgeous greens of rolling, forested hills and the sound of birdsong at the centre near Canning.
Set in 1938 in a fictional community, it’s the story of Melita Linton, an 18-year-old teacher just out of Normal School.
Melita, as played by Hilary Adams holding forth on her grassy stage for every scene, uses her iron will, cod liver oil and Christian values to tame an unruly bunch of kids, wonderfully and very convincingly portrayed by an ensemble of adult actors.
However, her classroom, community and certainty in herself are disrupted when a juvenile delinquent is sent to work on a farm after leaving the Battenville Training School.
The 14-year-old Ewart, sensitively, sympathetically and vividly portrayed by Henricus Gielis as vulnerable, menacing and full of self-doubt, is seen as a threat by the kids and their parents. However, Melita finds his soul as she encourages him to express himself in art and words.
Hilary Adams is a wonderful Melita, steely, beautiful, intensely thinking, full of emotional depth.
Playing the diverse and often amusing kids are: Melanie Leblanc, as the very funny, seven-year-old Milton, bright beyond his years with a high-pitched, excitable voice and a love for Ewart as his protector; Burgandy Code as the tough, farm boy prankster Dwight, Ryan Rogerson as Dwight’s robust, boyish and sometimes contrite partner-in-crime; Matthew Lumley in an affecting performance as Dwight’s awkward, learning-challenged brother; Micha Cromwell, crisp and clear and beautiful as Beryl, the perfect student who wins all the prizes, and Chris O’Neill as the rambunctious Flossie.
Ursula Calder is a stand-out as the hair-chewing kid Effa and as Melita’s pal Evie from Normal School, who smokes, dislikes children and speaks in the slang of the day.
The actors double up to create a busy community of parents, school trustees and farmers with Jeff Schwager as the college graduate Clinton who falls for Miss Linton and Ryan Rogerson in an impressive, comic turn as a gruff but kindly school superintendent.
The euchre game, played with actors facing forward though talking to each other, is a blast, as is a scene with Milton’s parents, with Melita pleading for acceptance of Ewart and Matthew Lumley’s dad grunting “un huh” when prompted by his wife. The iconic Christmas concert, with a lovely rendition of Fall on Your Knees, crafted by musical director Allen Cole, is a must-see.
With Jennifer Goodman’s earth-toned, period costumes, director Ken Schwartz creates a fast-moving, emotionally engaging and realistic world of a time long ago though this early 20th century society’s problems of exclusion, rejection and lack of compassion exist today. There are references to abuse and self-harm in Schoolhouse though writer Leanna Brodie slowly and poetically reveals these horrors.
Schoolhouse, which has opened Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s 30th season, runs to Sept. 4 at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. Also running is Macbeth by Fire at 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 9.30 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are available online (www.artscentretickets.ca/tickets); by phone (1-902-582-3073) or email (email@example.com). Seating is more limited this year so far due to COVID-19 restrictions.