Winnipeg-born Broadway star shines in PTE's Gracie

Samantha Hill gives a stellar turn in Joan MacLeod's look at a young girl's life in a polygamous community.

Joan MacLeod’s look at life in a polygamous community a subtle vehicle for a stellar turn from Samantha Hill

Samantha Hill, a Winnipeg-born actor who has performed in Broadway hits, stars in Prairie Theatre Exchange's Gracie, a one-woman show about a young girl growing up in a polygamous community in B.C. (Leif Norman)

Gracie is a lot like many eight-year-olds — she's annoyed by her siblings, really wants a new bike and her best friend is a doll.

But unlike most eight-year-olds, she accepts as perfectly normal the fact that her mother lives among 17 other "sister wives" and that, as she tells us, "God doesn't talk to girls, but He listens."

That's because Gracie — the central character in Governor General's Award-winning playwright Joan MacLeod's 2017 play of the same name — lives in Bountiful, B.C., a polygamous community.

In Gracie, a one-woman show opening Prairie Theatre Exchange's 45th season, MacLeod shows us what it might be like to grown up in such a community, with its veneer of normalcy and its confounding alienness. 

A story about growing up "unusual" in a polygamous community. Gracie runs from October 12 - 29 at the Prairie Theatre Exchange. 1:51

There have certainly been plenty of headlines about Bountiful, and the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — a splinter Mormon sect — who live there and practice polygamy.

But the strength of MacLeod's script is that it is remarkably free of judgment in telling Gracie's story. As we follow her from age eight to 15, we see a girl struggling with familiar issues but also with the notion that, like her mother, she will eventually be "assigned" to a man in the community as one of several wives. 

Samantha Hill gives a stellar turn as Gracie, playing the character from age eight to 15. (Leif Norman)
MacLeod's script is matter-of-fact but also laced with some striking imagery and flashes of humour.

In painting neither Gracie nor her community as freakish, but simply depicting the facts of her life, they play allows the audience to draw our own conclusions about the girl and her community.

It does struggle with an issue common in one-person shows: It relies heavily on "telling" over "showing," and so often keeps the audience at a certain emotional distance.

Some of that is overcome, though, by a stellar performance from Winnipeg-born-and-raised Samantha Hill, who has gone on to Broadway stardom with lead roles in hits like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

Hill introduces us to Gracie with an entirely believable turn as an eight-year-old — all fidgety energy and eye-rolling exasperation — and just as believably shows us a young girl moving toward young adulthood and beginning to question the world she's always known and accepted as normal.

Hill's performance is consistently engrossing in director Robert Metcalfe's well-crafted 90-minute production, and she crafts Gracie into a character whose world we may not entirely understand, but with whom we can consistently relate.

It is, simply put, strangely graceful.

Gracie runs at Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange until Oct. 29.

Joan MacLeod's Gracie offers a non-judgmental look at Gracie's life in her polygamous community. ( Leif Norman)

PTE artistic director to step down

In addition to opening its 45th season, Prairie Theatre Exchange announced this week that its longtime artistic director, Robert Metcalfe (the director of Gracie), will be leaving the theatre at the end of the 2017-18 season.

Robert Metcalfe will step down as PTE's artistic director at the end of the 2017-18 season. (Prairie Theatre Exchange)
His final season will be his 15th with the theatre, making him the longest-serving artistic director in PTE's history.

During his tenure, PTE launched a playwrights unit, which has seen seven new plays by Manitobans premiered on the PTE stage, and will see an eighth — Joseph Aragon's How the Heavens Go — premiere this season.

Metcalfe, who came to Winnipeg from B.C. and said he plans to return there, has also directed more than two dozen plays for PTE, the company said in a news release this week.

"The decision to leave both a company that has been like family and a city that has been my home was not an easy one," Metcalfe said in the release.

The theatre, which operates on a $2-million budget, also posted its 13th consecutive surplus under Metcalfe for its 2015-16 season, it said in a release last fall. Numbers for the 2016-17 season have not yet been released.

PTE has begun its search for a new artistic director.