Dying Hard: An Award-Winning One Woman Play

Tonight I went to see the performance of my cousin’s play, Dying Hard. It’s based on the book of the same name by noted anthropologist Elliott Leyton, professor of anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, about the miners in the town of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland – miners who suffered and died from cancer and silicosis got from working in the fluorspar mines, and their wives. Those of you who have read yesterday’s weekly update saw some links about the play, but this was the first time I saw it. I won’t be posting this review behind an LJ-Cut, because I want everyone to read it.

The play consists of the verbatim responses to the interviews given by six of the subjects of the book, four of them miners and two of them wives. Their stories are powerful in and of themselves, because all the ones chosen by Mikaela (my cousin) faced their fates with strength, and weren’t afraid to prompt laughs – even with the subject matter, the play had the audience laughing at numerous parts.

The order in which they progress is also powerful – two miners, one of the wives, then the other two miners and the second wife, who had already become a widow by that time. And I hadn’t realized before just how versatile Mikaela could be with her body language, and her face: she became those characters, using only a prop or two for each, even taking on their dialect (which made those of us in the audience unaccustomed to the thicker Newfoundland accents listen even more carefully to the first character) in a way that really got the essence of who they were across.

The play took place in the basement theatre of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, a small and fairly intimate theatre. Several songs were playing leading up to the play, including “The Chemical Worker’s Song (Process Man)” by Great Big Sea, from their album “up” – all focusing on the plight of miners in the developing industrial world. It added something to the atmosphere, I think.

I won’t describe the play in detail – it’s really something that has to be experienced to be understood, because it’s very much a visual and audial experience, and one that I think would be cheapened if I were to write it down. All I can say was that it was exceedingly powerful – so much so that as the lights faded after the widow’s part, one member of the audience (no idea who – we were sitting in the front row) breathed, “Wow!” That really said it all, I think.

Both last night and tonight were fully sold out; she’s going on to show the play in twenty more locations around the island over the next month or so, and she’s also going to be giving talks in high schools and junior highs about sociology and the means of passing on culture and history by means of stories and things such as theatre.

The play was first performed last year, in 2010, as part of the Fringe Festivals, which is where it won at least some of the aforementioned awards. Given the performance I saw tonight, it definitely deserves them. Mikaela mentioned in an interview she gave (the one with WAM, see link below) that while the stories were harsh and unpleasant, in terms of what happened to them, she wanted people to come away from the experience of watching the play with a feeling of hope and strength, the way the subjects had faced their fates. I think she definitely succeeded. And the order in which the characters appear plays a role in this, as well as the elements of humour from each of them. You might think that the widow’s story is the saddest – and in a way it is, if any of the stories can be said to be sadder than any other. They’re all facing death, after all. But at the same time, the widow spent a wonderful life with her husband while he lived, and she herself talks about the strength that everyone has shown facing this, and that really comes across.

Mikaela: Congratulations on succeeding in your aims for “Dying Hard”. You really did a magnificent job.

Links for some further information:
Here’s her interview on CBC WAM (Weekend Arts Morning).
Here’s a The Telegram article (for those who don’t know, The Telegram is the St. John’s newspaper).
Another newspaper article, from The Southern Gazette.
And one from the Calgary Herald.
Dying Hard: Industrial Carnage in St. Lawrence Newfoundland by Elliott Leyton at Amazon.ca, at Chapters/Indigo, and at Amazon.com

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