DREARY AND IZZY by Tara Beagan, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones, with Sharon Bakker, Ryan Cunningham, Lesley Faulkner and Michaela Washburn. Presented by Native Earth in association with Factory Theatre at the Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (Thursday, December 1) and runs to December 18, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $20-$25, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-9971.
Playwright Tara Beagan first learned about fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) from an angel.
Or rather, a young girl named Angel in a Lethbridge school where Beagan's sister taught and where the playwright led drama workshops.
"She was so affected that, although she was in grade 5, she came across as a five-year-old," remembers Beagan.
"The school assumed there would be a point when Angel would completely stop learning since her brain wasn't formed enough to take in the lessons of life like the rest of us."
The experience started Beagan thinking about and researching FAS.
"I was infuriated but also empowered. We can eradicate it by informing people. I wanted to find some way to contribute to that education, and I knew that the way for me was to use my gift as a storyteller."
That was the birth of Dreary And Izzy, the latest play from Beagan, who won a Dora last year for scripting Thy Neighbour's Wife.
It's the story of the Monoghan sisters. Dreary is Deirdre, the caregiver to her adopted sibling Isabelle (Izzy), who's been affected by fetal alcohol damage and has never known her native mother.
Their lives take a turn for the better with the appearance of Freddie Seven Horses, an aboriginal man selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Both sisters fixate on him.
"Freddie fits into Izzy's need for her mother, both her birth mother and her adoptive mother," says Michaela Washburn, who plays Izzy. "From the first, there's something about Freddie that satisfies Izzy's longing. He gives her a new way of looking at herself, of seeking a different kind of family. And being in the midst of family for Izzy means that she's loved."
Washburn feels that taking on the role of Izzy is the flip side of her acting work last year, when she played an alcoholic native mother in The Unnatural And Accidental Women. In that play, the character's children didn't appear; in Beagan's, we never see Izzy's mother.
How does she go about playing Izzy?
Washburn, who's a member of the native improv troupe Tonto's Nephews, relies confidently on clown training she began with John Turner.
"At some level the spirit never grows old; it's always new, youthful, curious," she says, explaining what's involved in playing a 28-year-old woman who behaves like an eight-year-old child. "Izzy's like a clown in the way she wants her needs and desires met immediately. She won't deal with compromise or negotiation."
Washburn and Beagan are sitting close on a chesterfield during a rehearsal break. Clearly bonded, they frequently give each other little hugs and broad smiles.
"Tara's actually given me two figures to play," says Washburn. "The play starts with a monologue for Isabelle - the figure Izzy might have been - who lives deep inside the person we see, doing her best to take care of her."
In 1975, when the play is set, there were few other people willing to take care of someone like Izzy - or lonely, caregiving Deirdre, for that matter.
"There was no support system for the two of them in the 70s," explains Beagan, a member of the UnSpun Collective and a performer in Thy Neighbour's Wife and TV's This Is Wonderland.
"It wasn't until 1975 that a medical journal published a paper on FAS and made it part of our vocabulary.
"So the two sisters are left to fend for themselves. It's true that they're the first and best friend for each other, but they're also innocents and often operate from a place of fear."
"Still, Freddie could make a big change for the women," interjects Washburn.
Salvation from a vacuum cleaner salesman? The idea offers more than a touch of humour, a quality that infuses the script along with more serious emotional truths.
"Given some of the sexual suggestions between Freddie and Deirdre in their first scene, I even wondered whether I was writing a porn show," Beagan admits with a giggle."I got over that idea quickly. After all, there's a blow job behind a sofa in Thy Neighbour's Wife, but that's not what the play is about."