by Lynn on August 19, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario.

Written by Beverley Cooper
Directed by Miles Potter
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Shawn Kerwin
Projections by Beth Kates
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Meghan Chalmers
Catherine Fitch
Anita La Selva
J.D. Nicholson

A compelling, well-reasoned play about censorship, book-banning and the freedom to read what you want.

The Story. If Truth Be Told, by Beverley Cooper is about some well-meaning citizens in a small Ontario town who want to ban some books from the high school curriculum because of the language and content.

In the 1970s and 80s there was a movement to ban questionable books from the curriculum in Ontario high schools—books such as The Diviners by Margaret Laurence and Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro. This is the background Cooper used to shape her play.

Peg Dunlop, a fictitious successful novelist, who comes home to her small Ontario town to take care of her ailing mother. One of the teachers in the local high school arranges for one of Peg Dunlop’s books to be taught that year. Maisie Piggott, one of the mothers of a student, reads the book and finds the language and the sex unacceptable and wants the book removed from the curriculum. To complicate matters, Maisie is also working for Peg to take care of Peg’s ailing mother. Maisie gets Harry Briggs, the local minister and also on the school board, to back her up in her endeavour to ban the book, along with The Diviners and Catcher in the Rye.

There are town hall meetings to discuss the issue and to sway people to have the books banned. Peg Dunlop resents having to defend her book. She has a hate, hate attitude towards her small home town. She was anxious to leave when she was younger and having to return has not helped her animosity.

The Production. Miles Potter has directed a beautifully tempered, but gripping production. Steve Lucas’s set is spare with a staircase going up to Peg’s mother’s room. A dinning room table and chairs is centre. This is where Peg tries to write in peace and has all manner of interruptions.

It’s a very strong cast headed by Catherine Fitch as Peg Dunlop. Peg’s animosity and frustration towards her small town, is expressed simply in Catherine Fitch’s squunched up face when presented with one more ridiculous decision of the well meaning townsfolk, and her keen intelligence when calmly but firmly presenting an argument. There is an edge to her voice but she does keep it in check. Catherine Fitch delivers a formidable performance.

Also formidable is Rebecca Auerback as Maysie. Maysie has had a hard life. She needs the job working for Peg but she also is a concerned parent. Auerbach has a world-weariness about her of a woman who has had to fight for every little scrap.

Anita La Selva as Carmelia, the high school teacher who champions Peg’s book, is quietly commanding as she lays out her arguments without rancour or anger. J.D. Nicholson as Harry Briggs is as committed to his argument for banning the books as he is concerned for the well being of everybody. And finally Meghan Chalmers is a typical teenager in her performance as Jennifer. She is stubborn, curious, and has a certain charm.

Director, Miles Potter keeps a tight focus on the arguments and we feel our guts knotting with every one of them. The various opponents for the arguments regarding the books are on either side of the stage, quietly offering their take on the debate. At issue is the freedom of reading not just of what to teach in schools.

Beth Kates’ projections offer places, dates and other information. The last series of projections at the end of the play left me breathless and shattered for all the right reasons.

Comment. Yes Censorship has always been around our schools and even our homes, with parents monitoring the books of their teenaged children.

(As an aside, I saw The Glass Menagerie in Edinburgh recently and Amanda Wingfield saw that her grown son Tom was reading a book by D.H. Lawrence and thought it was filth and took it back to the library without telling her son. Censorship has always been with us).

Beverley Cooper sites the recent problem of parents deciding what is to be taught in sex education classes. In If Truth Be Told Cooper presents both sides of the story with sensitivity and intelligence. Each argument is thoughtful and strongly presented.

There are no villains here, just parents who want to protect their children from bad language and adult situations, and a teacher who feels they know that language already and those situations. The teenaged kids, in the person of Maisie’s daughter Jennifer, wants to have their opinion voiced. They like the book and want to study it. So you get a situation where kids are reading a book in secret.

I loved the play and was glad of the chance to hear such compelling arguments on both sides.

Presented by the Blyth Festival

Closes: September 3.
Cast: 5: 1 man, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

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