It needs to be said that premiering a new made-in-Manitoba play is always an admirable endeavour. And it seems fitting that PTE - a company with an impressive track record in producing new local work - should open its 40th season with one.
—Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer
Winnipeg playwright Ellen Peterson's The Brink, seeing its world premiere this month at Prairie Theatre Exchange, is a play all about potential - what happens when we take a leap into the unknown? What could our lives be if circumstance had been different? And as a play, The Brink itself is full of potential - some of which it seizes, some of which is missed.
Set in the small Ontario town of Chippawa during the summer of 1969, the story focuses on Pat (RobYn Slade), a woman in her late 20s whose life revolves around trying to keep her family's small print shop business afloat. She gets little help from her mother, the cynical Shirley (Jan Skene), and her uncle Jim (Steven Ratzlaff), a well-meaning man damaged by his years in a Japanese POW camp.
Combined with the fact that the shop operates in a world of changing technology (this is, as we're frequently reminded, the summer of the moon landing) and changing societal values (represented by a U.S. Army deserter, played here by Evan Hall), Pat seems to be fighting a losing battle. And even if she wins, her reward is being trapped in the purgatory-like basement of the print shop.
Steve Ratzlaff as Jim (Bruce Monk)
All of this is good fodder for a compelling family drama, and at its best, The Brink
is just that. Slade, one of the city's finest young actors, gives a commanding performance as Pat, a likable if tragic heroine. Ratzlaff delivers moments of heartbreaking pathos as Jim, especially in brief flashbacks to his internment. In another series of flashbacks, Megan McArton steals the show with a powerhouse performance as Lillian, Jim and Shirley's mother, infamous for going over Niagara Falls in a barrel in her youth (McArton earned a spontaneous round of applause on opening night at the end of one of her monologues).
And here's where The Brink
teeters - it's trying to take on a lot of story, and doesn't quite get the balance right. The flashbacks seem to tease with stories that don't feel fully explored. And more frustratingly, the play seems to spend too much of its first act spinning its wheels. In particular, it feels there are missed opportunities to explore why Pat is so afraid to take the leap and leave her stifling existence in the first place.
The 135-minute long production, directed by Robert Metcalfe, hits its stride in the second act, after suffering from somewhat sluggish pacing in the first. Metcalfe does, though, make great use of Brian Perchaluk's stunning set, dominated by the arcing bridge on which Pat often finds herself about to take the plunge, and presided over by the moon - that great symbol of possibility.
For all The Brink
's not-insignificant flaws, though, it needs to be said that premiering a new made-in-Manitoba play is always an admirable endeavour. And it seems fitting that PTE - a company with an impressive track record in producing new local work - should open its 40th season with one. The Brink
may reach its potential unevenly, but it does remind us that nothing is gained when nothing is ventured.
The Brink runs at PTE until October 28.