THE REZ SISTERS by Tomson Highway (Stratford Festival). At the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy. Runs to August 21. $75. stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: NNNN
What’s on your wish list? To be a famous singer? To get your lover back? To travel and live somewhere else? Or, during the pandemic, do you simply long for good health?
These are some of the hopes and wishes of the seven titular Rez Sisters from Tomson Highway’s acclaimed play. And in a surprising moment in Jessica Carmichael’s lovely outdoor Stratford Festival production, you’ll get to join them in considering what you want, too, and why.
35 years after its debut, Highway’s work has only deepened and become more resonant. Of course, the nominal thing that all of the sisters, half-sisters and sisters-in-law want is to travel from their fictional reserve of Wasaychigan Hill (in Manitoulin Island) to Toronto to take part in “the Biggest Bingo in the World,” with a jackpot of $500,000.
But you get the feeling that, even if they were to win (and I’m not revealing any spoilers), they would still be filled with longing. That’s the human condition, after all. And Highway’s characters, while rooted in a specific culture, are universal.
Who hasn’t met a Pelajia Patchnose (Jani Lauzon), for instance, a restless contractor whose children are living in the big city? Or her sister Philomena Moosetail (Tracey Nepinak), who gave up a child – the result of an affair – for adoption? Or both women’s half-sister, Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromarty), who is living with cancer and worries what will happen to her children?
That’s one of Highway’s points. And the way the seven women interact with each other – gossiping, bringing up grudges and confronting perceived affronts – rings true.
Men are absent (look to Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing for a flip-side perspective) but still wield some power over these feisty, characterful women. The reserve’s chief, for instance, won’t give them the money to take the bingo-playing trip to Toronto; and men were responsible for one of the most violent acts that happened to one of the women.
While it takes a while for the many characters and their dynamics to register on Sophie Tang’s economical set – situated, like all the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy plays, between two sections – Carmichael and her actors eventually let the drama and the personalities emerge. A high-energy montage in which the women raise funds for their bingo trip is efficient in its staging, and the scene in which they ride a big van to get to their destination, telling lots of stories along the way, is haunting.
The most memorable scene, however, comes during the bingo game itself. Up until now we’ve seen the play’s eighth character, Nanabush (Zach Running Coyote), a mostly movement-based role, morph into various creatures overseeing, or echoing, the action. In this scene he reads out the bingo numbers, emerging as a capricious, powerful deity.
It’s hard to single out actors in an ensemble cast, Lauzon makes the image of the tough, resourceful Pelajia striding atop a roof but getting nowhere unforgettable, while Nepinak is equally powerful in the quieter role as her wounded sister. Nicole Joy-Fraser is exuberant and life-affirming as Annie Cook, an aspiring singer with a bit of a drinking problem. And Kathleen MacLean is gut-wrenching as the ex-biker Emily Dictionary, whose story of grief comes out during the play’s memorable road trip.
Speaking of road trips, it’s time to make one to see this rare production of Highway’s exquisite play.