Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Farther West begins with an arresting image—a lithe young woman and a much older, much wider man lie naked next to each other on a bare cot. The woman, we learn, is May Buchanan, who traveled across Canada in the 1870s and 1880s as a prostitute, and then as a brothel owner. She begins to tell her story as she shoves her john off her and gets dressed.
Buchanan’s desire to live free of social and legal controls manifests itself in shameless promiscuity, which prompts her father to instruct her to venture “farther west.” She puts the final touches on her outfit just as she reaches the part in her story where she does depart her home, to travel westward in search of a place where she belongs.
Playwright John Murrell is known for plays that depict strong women breaking down boundaries. His characters have included actress Sarah Bernhardt (Memoir), the women at home during WWII (Waiting for the Parade), and, of course, Buchanan. In fact, Murrell won a Chalmers Award for the two latter scripts. But today’s Soulpepper production of Farther West, which premiered in 1982, feels like it could use a lesson in feminism.
As the beautiful and bewitching Buchanan (played by Tara Nicodemo) makes her way across the land, not staying in one town long enough to let her roots brush the ground, she eventually lands in Calgary and recruits three local women to work for her. Violet Decarmin (Kyra Harper) is relentlessly bitter about her aging figure and waning sex appeal, Nettie McDowell (the always magnetic Christine Horne) is Violet’s “slow” and childlike charge, and Lily Reeves (Akosua Amo-Adem) is a sickly former singer. For a while, the business is practically utopian. Then, unsurprisingly, the authorities get in the way—first in the form of Constable Seward (Dan Lett) who tries to jail Buchanan. Then comes Thomas Shepherd (Matthew MacFadzean), who tries to trap her in married life. Without giving too much away, these two men and their obsessions follow Buchanan and eventually cause her downfall.
The story itself has some alarming elements (May’s sexuality liberates her, only to cause her demise later), but director Diana Leblanc only seems to heighten them. Melodramatic romantic moments between Buchanan and Shepherd suggest that she knows her true place is at his side, but feels tied to her nomadic life out of principle, or worse, just habit. And a final reappearance by Seward usurps May’s final, most triumphant moment. On the surface, this could be a comment on patriarchal power over women (if we’re stretching). But that’s impossible to argue when the production makes Buchanan seem far too weak, or suggests that she’s to blame for her unhappy ending.
Other aspects of the production don’t help matters. Astrid Jansen’s set is unimaginative (save for an onstage pool that works thematically, but traps the actors physically at times), and the constant repetition of a folk song in the first act feels stilted and extremely dated. Refreshing performances from Dan Chameroy as Lily’s devoted john, and Horne as Nettie, can’t save this production from wandering into fatal territory.