Alberta Theatre Projects presents
Waiting for the Parade
by John Murrell
at Martha Cohen Theatre through October 1
Three and a half stars
When John Murrell was commissioned to write Waiting for the Parade by Alberta Theatre Projects, way back in the mid-1970’s – think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nixon resigning and Kung Fu Fighting climbing the pop charts – the only stipulation was that he write a play about Canada’s involvement in the Second World War.
Imagine the theatre company’s surprise when Murrell informed them that his Great War story was going to focus exclusively on the lives of five Calgary women, and how having their husbands and children overseas fighting and in some cases sacrificing their lives, impacted them?
“I think they were a little puzzled,” Murrell said, in a March 2016 interview, “about what that would look like. I didn’t have any answers for them for a while.”
When Waiting for the Parade premiered, in 1977, it didn’t exactly knock the socks off the critics, either.
“The play is as unstructured as a raw egg spilled on a kitchen floor,” wrote Calgary Herald critic Brian Brennan, “and the finale, after about two and one half hours, is an anti-climactic copout.”
(Photo:Janelle Cooper as Janet in ATP’s Waiting for the Parade – courtesy Kenneth Locke)
Well, 40 years later – bad (Calgary) reviews and all – it turns out that Waiting for the Parade might just be the most-produced Canadian play ever written.
Since its inauspicious Calgary debut in 1977, Parade has been produced at least once every year, in countries around the world. It’s been produced in London, and New York and Toronto (that’s where one of the actresses who starred in the original ATP production found herself, auditioning for a role doing a monologue from Parade, which, it turned out, the artistic director liked more than her acting. He filled an empty programming slot with Waiting for the Parade, which got better reviews in Toronto, leading to a bunch of Canadian productions, and eventually, London, in the UK.)
Friday night, with Murrell, now 70 and undergoing treatment for leukemia in the house, Waiting for the Parade finally made its way home to ATP, after four decades of productions in just about every zip code you can think of.
While Waiting for the Parade is more elegiac and poetic than dramatic, it still packs plenty of punch, nearly four decades later, even if the Second World War has receded a little in audiences’ imaginations.
(They leave the lights on in Waiting for the Parade, a Second World War drama set in Calgary, Alberta. Photo courtesy Benjamin Laird).
The story is stitched around the wartime lives of five Calgary women, and how war changes everything even for those far removed from combat.
There’s Janet (Janelle Cooper), who runs the shop where the women work. She’s abrasive, curt, judgmental, bossy and not terribly sympatico – and doesn’t care. (There’s a war going on!)
There’s Catherine (Sabryn Rock), whose husband has gone off to Europe, leaving her to find emotional (and sexual) respite with whichever men are left behind.
Eve (Selina Wong) and Margaret (Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan) are both doing whatever they can to make it through a trying time, all while Marta (Allison Lynch), a German emigre who runs a store on Centre Street, copes with the perception that she’s on the side of the Nazis, not the good guys.
Turns out Marta’s father kept a stash of Hitler memorabilia in the basement, and despite her protestations to the contrary that that doesn’t mean he’s a Nazi symp, that doesn’t keep Janet, particularly, from going after her with an emotional vengenance.
Lynch is a terrific actress, but with her red hair rolled into a 1940’s style, looks more like a character from Ryan’s Daughter, a 1970 film about sexual awakening in Ireland, than a German fraulein – but Lynch plays Marta with such cool detachment, all of it delivered in a flawless German accent, that you soon find yourself buying into the idea.
Cooper’s Janet isn’t sympathetic for the most part, but Cooper delivers Janet’s edicts with a precision and authority that makes you respect her, if not actually sympathize with her.
Rock’s Catherine is the swerve and soul of the story – she is trying to live her life, in the middle of a war – all of which nicely counterpoints Janet’s judgy fastidiousness.
Wong’s Eve is someone trying to make the best of a bad situation, while Stepkowski-Tarhan’s Margaret, who has two sons overseas, eventually becomes the character who must really confront the emotional impact of war on a family.
It all unfolds in a setting that feels a little bit mythical, and a little bit nostalgic – Centre Street, Calgary, circa 1943.
Murrell might have left the big war scenes to other writers, but just like that actress in Toronto, women in theatre latched onto Waiting for the Parade and never let go – for four decades (including ATP’s Artistic Director Vanessa Porteous, who was one of those actresses who used Murrell’s monologues to audition with.)
“I have always loved writing roles for women,” Murrell said, back in March. “I find them more interesting, because as a man, they’re more mysterious to me. There’s more that I have to discover and lots that remains undiscoverable by a male writer, so it’s a real challenge.
“Plus,” he added, “I love seeing and hearing women perform – more than I love seeing and hearing men perform, I guess.
“There are always exceptions,” he said, “but I find the immediacy of a female actor generally speaking blows male actors out of the water.”
(Sabryn Rock, Selina Wong and Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan in Waiting for the Parade. Courtesy Benjamin Laird Photo).
That sentiment is reinforced throughout Waiting for the Parade, with strong performances by all five actors, most notably Stepkowski-Tarhan as Margaret, sitting upstage in her home, talking about how people can die from being alone. It’s a beautiful moment that Stepkowski-Tarhan nails – I’d give her the part if she hadn’t already gotten it!
Director Kate Newby has staged Waiting for the Parade as a bit of a period piece – the actresses each introduce themselves at the top of the show, and announce which character they’ll be playing, giving it all a feeling of a greatest hits album (of ATP) of sorts – but you know what?
It is a greatest hits of ATP – and Canadian theatre. In the 1970’s, when Canadian theatre was almost an oxymoron, John Murrell (and Sharon Pollock), two Calgary playwrights, were right there at the front of the line, devising new ways to tell Canadian stories – including the emotional fallout from our participation in the Great War.
By the time it reaches its boogie-woogie conclusion, with the women cutting a rug to mark one of the more momentous occasions in 2oth century history, Waiting for the Parade hits the sweet spot to kick off a 45th anniversary season at ATP that promises to be memorable.