NeWest Plays by Women


253 pages
ISBN 0-920897-16-9
DDC C812





Edited by Diane Bessai and Don Kerr
Reviewed by Renate Usmiani

Renate Usmiani was Professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax.


This seventh volume of the NeWest Play Series brings together the work of four women playwrights: one “new,” Pamela Boyd; one “young,” Wendy Lill; and two well-established, Joanna Glass and Sharon Pollock. Reflecting as it does varying levels of experience and expertise in dramatic technique, the anthology presents a useful overview of the current state of the art of playwrighting by women in Canada. The types of play represented demonstrate the younger authors’ reluctance to tackle the more complex aspects of plot construction, character interaction, and multiplicity of points of view; of the four plays, two are one-woman monologues (Pamela Boyd’s Inside Out and Wendy Lill’s The Occupation of Heather Rose); Joanna Glass’s Play Memory is a single-focus memory play; only Sharon Pollock’s Whiskey Six Cadenza features the full range of traditional dramatic techniques.

Pamela Boyd comes to playwrighting with practical stage experience, and Inside Out works best in its theatrical aspect: the young mother’s increasing cabin fever and exasperation come through better by means of the grotesque baby puppet whose velcro grip she is unable to escape, and through the voiced-over babble that never lets up through the play, than via the spoken word. But the caged mother / callous father syndrome has worn thin by now, and Ellen’s plight fails to convince. It may be a pity that she makes sacrifices in order to bring up her child, but the portrayal of her plight does not make convincing drama.

In contrast to Inside Out, The Occupation of Heather Rose opens up a wide spectrum of human and social problems. Set in the far north, it is a drama of failure and defeat: failure of the natives to avail themselves of opportunities offered; failure of the white man to break through the culture barrier; personal and professional defeat of Heather Rose, the idealistic young nurse. Against the bleak background of the north country, the author draws an agonizing portrait of the young woman’s inevitable emotional disintegration as she discovers that nothing she has to offer is good enough to tackle an essentially impossible situation. The two-act monologue is changed with energy, its shif ting moods and tone a real challenge to any actress brave enough to attempt it.

Although set in the Canadian prairies, Joanna Glass’s Play Memory strongly evokes two American plays: the techniques of The Glass Menagerie, and the theme of Death of a Salesman. Combining the two, she shows us the demise of Cam MacMillan, a once-successful salesman and regional organizer, through the memory scrim of his daughter Jean. Expanding the theme beyond the family unit, Glass also deals with friendship and its necessary limitations, and the encroachment of politics on the lives of individuals: to create a politically useful scapegoat, an essentially innocent man has to be destroyed. A feminist touch is added with the eventual liberation of both wife and daughter, who escape the father’s alcoholic hell to make new lives for themselves. A powerful play.

Of the four plays, Sharon Pollock’s is the most naturalistic, focusing on unemployment, working conditions in the mines, and the problems created by Prohibition in post-World War I British Columbia. It is a folksy play, which puts on stage an array of colourful characters with different ethnic backgrounds. The realism of the play is relieved by mythical and fairy-tale elements which give it a special charm. Also unlike the other plays in the anthology, Whiskey Six Cadenza presents its problems from a variety of perspectives and points of view, thus allowing the reader to come to her own conclusions.


“NeWest Plays by Women,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,