By Prof. Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: There are times when some words, uttered casually or nonchalantly, travel so far and wide, and touch someone so deeply that one is awed by the mystery of their power.
The play, The Little Years by John Mighton at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto explores the power of such words in a most subtle and engaging manner.
It is a play that spans three generations and some fifty years in the second half of the 20th century. Yet how easily we have forgotten how in the 1950s, for a young girl in Canada the dream of becoming a mathematician or a scientist was pooh-poohed by everyone; her path was charted ever so rigidly as a secretary or a librarian or a nurse, all dutifully tethered to a husband and the children.
What if there is a precocious girl who wonders about the mysteries of time and a multi-dimensional universe? What if she questions the immortality of art in an ephemeral world? What if she takes flights of imagination into an unknown cave?
This play is the story of one such girl, Kate, brilliantly played by Irene Poole. The more her imagination takes flight, the more she is shackled by the fearful norms of her family and her society; she is ‘abnormal’; she is ‘depressed’; she has to be administered electric shocks. She must find a man; she must control herself; she must become like all others.
At a time in the 60s and the 70s, when there were grand waves of sexual freedom and feminist movements in Canada and the West, The Little Years explores another kind of freedom which is not enslaved by popular fashions and clever slogans, but is marked by the freedom of spirit. As people come and go out of Kate’s life – her brother and his wife, her mother, an artist, a niece, doctors and nurses – she sees them all caught in a grind, not even struggling to be free. Not even knowing what freedom might be!
The playwright, John Mighton, is a mathematician and a fervent educator who has railed against myth of ability in his books. As a playwright of Half Life and The Little Years, he has explored the mysteries of time in the human journey with quiet elegance. In his plays passage of time – of minutes, days and years – is marked by the significance with which it is loaded, and the waves it makes in the mighty river of life.
The director, Chris Abraham, and the lighting designer, Kimberly Purtell, have portrayed these ripples and waves, and storms and tsunamis with imagination. How they sometimes lull but often tear apart Kate’s life, and of others, is both beguiling and illuminating.
Kate’s adolescent dreams have been thwarted, but her piercing words have travelled far: forty years later they have touched a young budding mathematician. Some thirty years earlier, unknown to her, they had touched an artist at the cusp of fame.
Who knows how they might touch an enthusiastic audience in the theatre, so enthralled by them?
The Little Years runs till December 16, 2012 at Tarragon Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at www.tarragontheatre.com
(Prof. Sehdev Kumar lectures on International Films at the University of Toronto)