Fashion, Power, Guilt and the Charity of Families


64 pages
ISBN 0-921368-59-3
DDC C812'.54




Reviewed by Shannon Hengen

Shannon Hengen is an associate professor of English at Laurentian
University and the author of Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors,
Reflections and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry.


This two-act play is remarkable for language that is at once spare and
evocative. Production notes explain that the “ tone of the play varies
from the surreal to the sharply realistic,” and in either tone the
voices are compelling. The nameless bureaucrats who propose to create
and, later, to analyze the nuclear family, and the family of four
itself—Jane, Brian, Sally, and Michael—speak with uncanny
resemblance to a middle-class Canadian audience, and yet the family
members escape stereotype through their expression of patient individual

The production notes claim that the play’s “vignettes ... seek to
question the conventional notion of the nuclear family,” which is not
to say that the play questions the value of the family: rather, it
suggests that conventional notions—either idealized or degraded—of
the nuclear family actually undermine the family’s purpose. Beyond
eating healthy meals together, playing board games together, or
discussing things ensemble and openly with “the Fret-and-Worry
Management Consultant,” this family breaks through the loneliness that
frames this play thematically only twice: once to end Act One, when they
appear to adopt a stray dog; and again near the end of Act Two, when
they comfort one another upon the parents’ disclosure of the infant
death of the family’s oldest child years before. Not a celebration of
family values, the play is an eloquent reminder that the family, however
it is defined, can be a place where our losses are deeply soothed and

But the Shieldses’ work is not weighed down with the message; craft
shapes the ideas subtly into art. A lightness associated with the comic
or even the absurd graces most scenes. Expertly used recurring images,
such as the upstairs window and the barking dog, satisfy the need for
dramatic structure, and the songs offer release for the imagination.


Shields, Carol, and Catherine Shields., “Fashion, Power, Guilt and the Charity of Families,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,