An important figure in Canadian history, Doris Anderson proves a fitting subject for Theatre Erindale’s current season, titled “Uppity Women!”. Their latest production, Rebel Daughter, delves into the life of Anderson, a groundbreaking magazine editor and feminist, who passed away at the age of 85 in 2007.
Rebel Daughter was adapted by the third-year class in the UTM/Sheridan joint theatre studies program from Anderson’s autobiography. We follow Anderson from the earliest stages of her life well into her 20-year editorship at the Canadian magazine Chatelaine, creating a well-rounded look at a fascinating character. Exploring Anderson’s life as a boundary-breaking career woman as well as a complicated individual, Rebel Daughter hits some of the expected notes and life events that you would expect a play of its kind to hit, and it does so effectively, constantly raising the emotional stakes as it goes along.
However, the way the actors portray her life story is far from expected. Instead of following typical casting conventions and having one actress portray Anderson throughout the play, every female cast member gets her turn to portray a segment of Anderson’s life, and each actress offers a slightly different approach to Anderson, bringing out her many facets. Whether she’s exerting her negotiation skills in hopes of receiving a promotion or exhaustedly bickering with her husband at home, Anderson makes for a compelling subject. The rotating actresses also echo an important theme explored in the play: it’s impossible to boil something as complex as womanhood down to one set of traits. In her work at Chatelaine, the play shows Anderson fighting to portray a well-rounded “Canadian woman” and pushing the envelope of appropriate discussion in a woman’s magazine. The choices made by the actresses in Rebel Daughter seem to reflect their own views of Anderson, her work, and her accomplishments.
Throughout the play, the large ensemble all take on a variety of roles, portraying a large cast of characters who played an important part, overtly or subtly, in Anderson’s career and personal relationships. To the credit both of the actors and of director Heinar Piller, the play doesn’t end up feeling muddled. With so many periphery roles and over a dozen different actresses portraying the same character, things easily could have become confusing, but the narrative is easy to follow.
But while it may not be confusing, the story does feel somewhat briskly paced at times. The play admirably covers a lot of ground in Anderson’s life; we see many different moments and anecdotes from different periods of her life. Many scenes are well-developed and perfectly pitched—for example, one early scene offers a bleak look at Anderson’s tough childhood during the Great Depression—but there’s so much material to cover that, during other moments in Rebel Daughter, it feels like there isn’t room to stop to take a breath before we bustle on to the next scene.
The commitment to unique storytelling here can’t go unnoticed, though. There are many creative uses of the large cast, who play a classical Greek chorus, a train, and the modern-day Chatelaine editorial team tasked with eulogizing Anderson after her death. They’re kept busy, to say the least.
There are also many humorous moments that feel a bit unexpected given the subject but are certainly not unwelcome. While Rebel Daughter isn’t exactly a comedy, it expertly navigates difficult transitions between intensely emotional moments and laugh-out-loud humour, effectively portraying the complicated mixture of tragedy and humour that can be at odds in a person’s life.
Keeping the staging, costumes, and props simple, Piller ensures that the focus remains on Anderson’s compelling life story. It proves that you don’t need a lot to make something important, complementing Anderson’s own ability to transcend her humble beginnings. The use of a screen to show pictures and convey biographical information doesn’t feel heavy-handed, instead serving as an effective storytelling device that recreates the effect of flipping though a scrapbook or photo album to learn more about someone’s life.
Adding an extra little bit of emotional resonance, Anderson’s son, Stephen Anderson, was actually in the crowd to take in the production on opening night. This only added to the intensely personal feel of the play. And though my perspective may be that of an outsider, Rebel Daughter feels to me like a loving and fitting tribute to a groundbreaking Canadian figure whose influence lives on.
Rebel Daughter runs until November 24 at the Erindale Studio Theatre. Visit theatreerindale.com for more information.