The world is shifting underneath her feet and yet, Janet Wilson tries very hard not to notice. The world premiere of Janet Wilson Meets the Queen by Beverley Cooper, playing now at the GCTC, turns a family’s home into a microcosm for the rise of political activism and shifting gender roles that mark the 1970s.
The epitome of 1960’s housewife, Janet prepares for Vancouver’s centennial anniversary and a celebratory visit from the Queen of England. Roger Schultz’s set is a perfectly 1960s kitchen with its colourful, floral print wallpaper that blends into a perfectly matching floor. Two additional risers flank the main stage, which become additional rooms inside the Wilson’s home. A large screen hovers over the kitchen, where the opening moments of the play depict Neil Armstrong’s iconic first steps on the moon. As the play progresses, the moon-walking man materializes on stage, visible only to Janet. He becomes a symbol of the impossibility of stagnation; progress is literally invading her home.
The play portrays two time periods in two acts. In the first act, we are in 1969 and Janet Wilson is a caricature of propriety and submissiveness in her household. Marion Day plays a particular, uptight, and passive Janet Wilson. Wilson’s absent husband, her surly teenage daughter Lily (Katie Ryerson), and her elderly mother (Beverley Wolfe) all exist to be served by Janet. By the second act, we jump forward to 1971, where that surly teenager, Lily, has metamorphosed into a young woman who is passionate about social politics, critical of the Vietnam War and a vocal proponent of women’s liberation. The contrast between Janet and her daughter is striking. Where Lilibet’s world has expanded, Janet has become a sad relic of an age gone by. The play toys with ideas of female sexuality, autonomy over one’s reproductive organs, and offers a dangerously one-dimensional representation of men.
This play attempts to create a real sense of nostalgia, and unfortunately that is the strongest lingering point of the production, to the point of tedium. From set to script, this is an immersive portrait of a period in flux. Cooper’s script uses the historic setting to point toward social instability, revealing a real darkness even in this seemingly Brady Bunch setting, yet director Andrea Donaldson’s work shores up the many recognizable tropes and a cast of caricatures, while avoiding the humanity at the heart of this play.
This is most evident in a really dark moment between Lily and her draft-dodging cousin, Robbie (Tony Adams). Throughout the first act both are played as comedic roles. She is a 15-year-old who dreams of being a go-go dancer, and he has fashioned himself as a true-blue hippy. When a shift in their relationship occurs, and Robbie becomes an aggressor, the moment reads as an extension of the comedy. It’s an unsettling interpretation of this moment in the script.
Perhaps my favourite character, Granny, is under-utilized in this production. Played by Beverley Wolfe, Granny is Sophia from the Golden Girls. She’s brash, disagreeable, and delivers some quippy lines that lead to easy laughter. But her progression as a character is never underscored. She is but a footnote in this production, yet perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the script. There’s an eerie moment in the second act where, due to over-medication, the very vocal Granny has become nearly comatose onstage. It’s so dark, but nearly completely glazed over. Part of the “old guard”, Granny has in part contributed to Janet’s worldview, and yet, she reveals a surprising pro-choice stance that seems to come out of nowhere.
Though the play musters a few pointed commentaries, the resounding impact is distinctly dull. The whole first act delivers nearly zero conflict, instead over-dramatizing the archetypal 1960s home and relying on half-baked slapstick. The script offers slightly more character nuances than what was portrayed on stage, and still, not quite enough leave a strong impression.