It’s hard to believe that it’s already the end of the season for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Coming in hot on the heels of the uber-enjoyable How Black Mothers Say I Love You, is Joan MacLeod’s Gracie– a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith, isolated (yet pervasive) cults, and festered patriarchy. On paper, this production should be a knock-out given it’s strong creative team, yet sadly, I found myself struggling to feel enthralled by the actual performance and, strangely enough, came to appreciate the piece a lot more once I entered my own writing process for the review.
Joan MacLeod’s newest play, Gracie, is an exploration of one girl’s journey growing up in fundamentalist polygamist (specifically the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints[FLDS]) in both Canada and the United States. In it MacLeod tries to shine the light on an area of sexual and familial politics that’s not often at the forefront of mainstream discourse through the form of an extended dramatic monologue by the titular character. While the text is prone to rather unnecessary descriptions of the surroundings and fails to deliver a significant emotional punch it does present audiences with some interesting themes on feminism, faith, and family.
Unfortunately, this show is not one of my favourites of the GCTC 2017-2018 season. Certainly, the themes brought up in the text are ones that are still relevant today, however, the actual production, for me, left much to be desired. The stage design, by GCTC veteran Roger Shultz (How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Janet Wilson Meets the Queen, Butcher, and The Best Brothers), is beautifully constructed with its wood panel “porch” that wraps around the large upward curving wooden structure centre stage but almost seemed to overpower Erica Anderson’s portrayal of Gracie. Not to mention Anderson only uses the curved structure once or twice in the second half of the show and it is used quite literally (as in, Anderson climbs it when Gracie and Allie are stretching out to dry after swimming in the river) as opposed to emphasizing a significant moment in the text and thus feels a bit underutilized.
The performance feels as though it’s lacking variety in that, while Gracie comes across as a fully fleshed out character, Anderson’s depiction of the male characters in the story, like Billy, Shelby and Brandon, all sound far too similar. It’s not clear if this is perhaps a choice made by director Eric Coates who may be trying to suggest that the men in Gracie’s life are all the same, but Billy’s “redemption” storyline doesn’t really give this choice much credence. Anderson’s accent work is quite good and you can tell she’s fully committed to the character, however, I didn’t find myself very engaged by her story telling. Again, I’m not sure if it was due to the odd pacing where each section is broken up by moments where the lights dim and Anderson moves behind the curved structure (no doubt, getting a drink of water as a 90 minute solo show is no joke) or the piece, as a whole, seeming to lack the climax the text appears to build up for you, but I honestly felt a bit bored.
Now, the themes within the piece, I find, to be incredibly interesting and where Gracie may not have intrigued me fully on the stage, I am certainly intrigued by the intellectual quandaries it raises post-show. Questions surrounding what values we’ve come to accept as being “definitive” of femininity while simultaneously exploring how these same ideals are used to oppress women. The notion of “Keep Sweet” (a term popularized in the early 90s by FLDS “prophet” Rulon Jeffs to mean followers ought to “fill themselves up with the Holy Spirit” in order to keep a clean conscious in preparation for the final Judgement of God; and whose son, Warren, subsequently changed the meaning of the phrase quite dramatically) is mentioned by Gracie a few times throughout the show. To her personally, it comes as a sort-of mantra she repeats to calm herself in moments of high stress and confusion so as to recentre her confidence in her faith; but conversely, the tagline, which is emblazoned in white stones across the entrance of the Bountiful compound in British Columbia, is used to manipulate the subservient sister-wives and the young women in each community.
In Warren Jeffs’ own words,
“If you are keeping sweet no matter what, you are a person ready to give up your own will and just obey the priesthood over you. In order to Keep Sweet, it requires the sacrifice of our feelings.” (WSJ 11/2/95) “To be loyal to Heavenly Father, to truly love Him and obey Him, you must keep sweet no matter what. If your feelings can be disturbed and you simply need more of the spirit of God to have and earn more of that sweet spirit, you must pay the price. The price is sacrifice. Set aside any feeling or thought that disturbs the spirit of God.” (WSJ 1/28/2003) [Quote sourced from online blog “FLDS 101”]
What’s particularly notable here is the term “priesthood” which, in this case, stands to represent the head of the household (read: the father). Women are assigned to husbands based on needs of procreation (and diversifying the gene pool) rather than of their own choosing. They also aren’t afforded the privilege of choosing whose sister-wife they’d like to be, for example, how we see Gracie imagining her life as a sister-wife to her best friend Allie. Furthermore, women who live under this “keep sweet” mentality are discouraged from being jealous of or competitive with their sister-wives (this is most obviously reflected in their uniform prairie-style dresses and being covered wrist to ankle) despite having to share the household duties, child rearing responsibilities, and a husband. Thus, a bit ironically maybe, being made a first-wife is seen as a great honor. Gracie tells us that her mother takes pride in moving to Canada to marry Mr. Shelby because she became his 18th wife from being another man’s 23rd and that was “her idea of moving up in the world”. While a male’s duty appears to be gaining as many wives as possible (for which the reasoning is discussed in more detail below), women seem to be relegated to chattel who can only see their value in terms of where they fall in line to their husband.
Conversely, these FLDS communities are also repressive to the young single men who grow up there. The men who run these societies are considered Bishops or even Prophets of their respective communes and so that “holy” status gives them the power to be the only ones who can arrange the marriages of their followers. Wives (as they are considered a commodity, in this sense) are not “dolled out” on an equal basis even though, according to FLDS scripture, having more wives and more children makes you closer to God (apparently the ideal number of wives to have is three). The slow trickle-down effect of this system is clearly exemplified in the play by Gracie’s discontented brother Billy who asks, “what is the value of a guy with no wife?” to which the response is “zero” and he further suggests that it “all comes down to math”: When one man has 29 wives in a single community, doesn’t that mean there are 29 other men in that community without a partner? How do those men reach God when dating and courtship are seen as unholy practices and marriages arranged without the Prophet’s “revelation” risk eternal damnation? The ecclesiastical fear that controls FLDS followers is an insidious tool that’s used on both boys and girls from a very young age and the notion of “keep[ing] sweet” is the sugar that’s supposed to help this poison go down easier.
I realize that this review leans more towards textual analysis, but I can’t apologize for being more interested in the issues the piece brings up than in this particular performance or the story of Gracie herself. Reviews like this have largely fallen out of favour with readers understandably wanting an account of the production as a whole, but sometimes the most satisfactory way for a reviewer to engage with a production is for the reviewer to engage with a text that they may have never picked up for themselves otherwise. I can only speak for myself when I say that while I found the stage performance to be lacklustre (perhaps I am still riding the high from How Black Mothers Say I Love You), I found more enjoyment in doing research and applying it back to Gracie not only when it came to writing this review but also talking to other people about the show. Even if a production is found to be wanting, I’m always happy for art that encourages discussion.
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by Eric Coates
Featuring Erica Anderson as Gracie
Lighting Design by Guillaume Houet
Set, Props, and Costume Design by Roger Shultz
Original Music and Sound Design by Keith Thomas