Ipperwash draws on past conflicts to tell a moving modern ghost story

IPPERWASH by Falen Johnson (Native Earth Performing Arts/Blyth Festival). At Aki Studio (585 Dundas East). Runs to February 18. $15-$25..

IPPERWASH by Falen Johnson (Native Earth Performing Arts/Blyth Festival). At Aki Studio (585 Dundas East). Runs to February 18. $15-$25. 416-531-1402, nativeearth.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN

The 1995 Ipperwash land dispute and crisis that resulted in the shooting death of unarmed Indigenous protestor Dudley George by the Ontario Provincial Police is not explicitly part of Falen Johnsons haunting new drama. But it provides potent subtext for her moving modern ghost story.

Set around present-day Ipperwash, the action often harkens back to 1942, when the land on the shore of Lake Huron belonging to the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation was appropriated by the Canadian military in order to establish the Camp Ipperwash training base, only just recently returned.

The story begins with Bea (PJ Prudat), a Canadian Forces soldier back from the war in Afghanistan, arriving at Ipperwash as part of the Department of National Defences efforts to clean up over a half-centurys worth of military activity on the ecosystem, including unexploded ordinance embedded in the land. Bea quickly runs into Slip (James Dallas Smith), the self-proclaimed head of security for the Stony Point band, and when he learns she is also Indigenous, they strike up an uneasy friendship ostensibly about local history.

Things get really interesting when Bea rents an old abandoned house from Slips uncle Tim (Jonathan Fisher), a kindly World War Two veteran repressing deep-seated trauma. Soon, Bea begins experiencing strange events and starts connecting the dots in a heart-rending decades-old tragedy.

Johnson, who first impressed me at SummerWorks 2016 with her back-alley family drama Two Indians, has written another excellent script. The well-paced narrative is exciting, fascinating, funny, spine-tinglingly spooky, educational and politically engaged. Theres a lot going on, but Johnson organizes it into a clear and compelling 70 minutes that keep you on the edge of your seat, from the tense opening to the emotionally charged conclusion.

Johnson also makes her directorial debut, handling the mostly realistic action well, getting strong performances and a very watchable dynamic from Prudat and Smith that weaves between flirtatious and standoffish. A few moments especially Bea and Tims first conversation outside the old house feel static and could use more of Johnsons directorial touch, but these hardly lessen the impact.

The powerful metaphor of unexploded ordinance, and the connections between Indigenous experiences in World War Two and the war in Afghanistan, make this a riveting, much-needed exploration of post-traumatic stress in Indigenous individuals due to wars abroad and at home.

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