For most of her 20-year career, play-wright Joanna McClelland Glass has been explaining Canadians to Americans. Born in Canada in 1938 but a resident of the United States for the past 30 years, Glass has written a number of successful
plays drawing on her girlhood in Saskatoon. The majority of them premiered south of the border, including the 1984 Tony-nominated Play Memory. Glass’s latest drama, Yesteryear, breaks with the usual pattern: it opened last week at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre in a Canadian Stage Company production, her first Canadian première in more than 10 years. For a change, Glass is explaining Canadians to the world’s leading experts on the subject— Canadians themselves.
Like other Glass dramas, Yesteryear mines a vein of sensibility that has long been out of fashion. In spirit, the play is close to Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, offering a picture of an earlier, more innocent Canada. Rather than re-creating the 1940s from a 1980s perspective, Glass offers a cozy, nostalgic comedy, full of what in small towns are labelled “colorful characters.” Yesteryear
will offend no one—nor will it particularly enlighten or move anyone. While it does display genuine humor, at times it is as sentimental as an evening spent listening to old records.
The play is set in the mythical Saskatchewan town of Ragland. The year is 1948, and the place is the back room of Howard’s Hardware, with its clutter of pitchforks, putty knives and paint cans. The room is also the home of David McTavish (R. H. Thomson), a 40-year-old
bachelor and house painter who has been pining for the woman he lost 15 years ago. David was about to marry Mildred Douglas (Kate Trotter), but on the night before the ceremony, he discovered her necking with another man and broke off the engagement.
The storeroom is also the daily meeting place for what is known in Ragland as “The Gathering”—the informal, whisky-sipping clique of the town’s most powerful men. Although the characters are all somewhat stereotyped, Glass and the actors manage to imbue them with boundless, satirical vitality. The dyspeptic retired banker, Tom Wallace (Sandy Webster), the blustering mayor, Angus Macpherson (Michael Ball), the sullen police chief, Andy Campbell (Ken James), and the town’s alcoholic captain of industry, Sandy MacMillan (Peter MacNeill), have a wonderfully entertaining time exercising their prejudices together.
The Gathering is in full swing when a telegram arrives announcing that David has just won $120,000 in the Irish sweepstakes. He decides to stop painting houses, but his elation subsides into despair when he realizes that there is nothing in particular he wants to do. Then lightning strikes a second time: Mildred returns to Ragland after a 15-year absence. She, too, has been pining, but her plans to rescue David from poverty and solitude are upset by the news of his good fortune. Vexed, she tells him, “I counted on finding you poor!”
Mildred eventually lets David court her, but announces that she will marry him only if he does something constructive with his money. When David decides to run for town council, Mildred agrees to become his wife, and they set out to buy the biggest house in town. It just happens to be the local whorehouse, run by an aging madam called Emma Day (played with husky-voiced aplomb by Charmion King).
Unfortunately, their attempts to buy the brothel bear little relation to earlier themes, and Yesterday soon runs out of dramatic steam. And the script’s cliché-ridden struggle to portray the deeper emotions between David and Mildred is faintly embarrassing. But the acting is first-rate. Thomson manages to shoehorn himself into the narrow confines of his role and create the illusion of substance. With his slight hunch and gawking sincerity, he is the very image of the earnest, naïve Canadian of another era. Yesteryear may not tell Canadians much about who they are now, but it occasionally has something worthwhile to say about where they come from.
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