What teenager doesn’t dream of escape? Melody Johnson’s Miss Caledonia is a classic tale of a girl’s desire to leave her Canadian farm for the bright lights of Hollywood.
“There are a few farm plays in Canada, but there hasn’t been one told from a gal’s perspective,” says Johnson. Based on the memories of her mother, this one woman show remains both universal and yet incisively personal.
In 1955 Peggy Ann Douglas, Johnson’s mother, dreamt of a life eating bonbons with Bing Crosby while in reality her days were spent working the family farm outside Caledonia, Ontario. As Johnson traces her mother’s journey from chicken catching, through charm school, to the finals of the Miss Caledonia contest, it becomes clear that the true heart of the show lies in its supporting characters.
“I know a lot of these people quite intimately,” explains Johnson. “I play my grandfather and my grandmother; local people in the area of Caledonia. There’s even an auctioneer that’s an homage to my uncle, my mother’s brother. I think a lot of us want to escape the small places that we came from, but once we’re away we realize that it’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We don’t realize how much our family has made us who we are.”
Johnson’s personal connection to the characters becomes all the more apparent in the second act where she dives deep into the relationship between her mother, Peggy Ann, and her grandmother, Helen. While visiting a wealthy friend, Helen ducks into the indoor washroom – an unimaginable luxury for her. In a scene that could easily have been played for laughs, Johnson’s connection, respect, and deep feelings of love for her grandmother offers a moment of quiet introspection on how a mother wants more for her child. The moments where Johnson plays her grandmother are a treat and never fail to connect with that capable yet brusquely supportive style of mothering unique to the Canadian farmlands.
While the musical interludes by fiddle-player Mary Fay Coady add valuable accents of time, location, and mood, at times it competes with Johnson’s narrative for the audience’s attention. That said, the toe-tapping introduction at the top of the second act introduced a much needed energy to the room as Johnson dove into the climax of her story.
Miss Caledonia is a beautifully acted moment of Canadian history as Johnson neatly encapsulates the history of her family in a brief 90 minutes with wit, charm, laughter, and a whole lot of poise. While the play begins to flag near the end of the first half, Miss Caledonia remains an enjoyable night out for those looking for a nostalgic snapshot of rural Canadian life.
Miss Caledonia by Melody Johnson. Directed by Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis. On stage at Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond) until March 14. Visit https://www.gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.