Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Nicole Power’s work is a pleasure to watch. On screen or stage, her subtle portrayals mine a nuanced depth and humanity that warm – and yet can wrench – the heart. Toronto audiences eager for her return as upbeat Shannon Ross in the 3rd season of CBC TV’s hit comedy Kim’s Convenience will find a different side of her on display in Soulpepper’s world-premiere production of Sisters, written by Toronto playwright Rosamund Small and based on the novella Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton.
The plot centres on two sisters, elder sister Ann (played by Laura Condlln) and younger sister Evelina, whom Ms Power portrays. The sisters are orphans in a lowly neighbourhood in New York City in 1892. They live in the basement of a house belonging to their nosy landlady Mrs Mellins (played by Karen Robinson), a dressmaker who revels in scandalous gossip and is prone to debilitating headaches. In this environment, the sisters “run a modest shop selling artificial flowers and jars of preserves, and offer mending and sewing for the female population of the square,” Ms Power offers. “The sisters have no other family and are soul partners in life. The relationship we see in the play is a strong sisterhood, and while we are exploring a moment where this bond is strained, ultimately we are examining the strength of their connection.”
In her view, this aspect of relationships – which is the focus of the play – is “quite universal”. Wharton wrote the novella in 1892, but it was not published until 1916, as a part of Xingu and Other Stories. 102 years on from its publication, Wharton’s story is still “really shining light on the often self-sacrificial nature of our familial relationships, which I believe is as timely today as ever.” The play’s origin yielded a vast amount of source material for Ms Power’s research: first, the novella, then more of Wharton’s short stories, then accounts of Wharton’s personal life and New York at the turn of the 20th Century. Ms Power sees this abundance as a “gift”, which greatly informed her characterization.
Time is a dominant, even oppressive, theme in the production. The purchase and gift of a clock catalyzes the action, and throughout the play, the sound of a clock ticks louder at key moments like a subtextual heartbeat, punctuating the idea of time ticking on and ticking by. Time forces its way into the initial stasis of the Bunner sisters’ life below ground . . . and the play recounts with accelerating urgency the upheaval caused by its invasion. “While of course we have progressed and times have changed, the societal pressure of marriage and the idea there is an expiry date on a woman is ever present,” notes Ms Power. She also laments that “in a world dominated by social media, that message is still often entertained.”
In their little world, which is a single room shop with a bed at the back, the sisters are dependant on the whims of the wealthy, symbolized by the enormous puffed sleeves of a shop patron (Ellora Patnaik), whose occasional purchases of ribbons, embellishments and the odd jar of jam support the Bunner sisters’ livelihood. But their lives are forever changed from the moment Herman Ramy (Kevin Bundy) – the source of the clock – enters their world. A husband could elevate their status as penurious spinsters, but which sister will land one, and through what means? And with the clock ticking loudly, is this a gamble leading to happiness and prosperity, or uncertainty and turmoil?
Small’s adaptation retains the source material’s 19th century setting, which serves as a potent counterpoint to the contemporary issues still facing women. Ms Power points out that Wharton typically focused her stories on the aristocracy, which she herself was born into and knew firsthand. Yet here, “she chose a pair of sisters on the verge of poverty, living in a world that reminds them constantly about their prescribed ‘role’ as a woman. A world where it is widely believed that a woman’s life only begins when she is married and transitions to the role of ‘wife’.” Issues of gender and class inequity, and even this week’s recent increase in Canada’s unemployment rate (led by Ontario), echo Ann and Evelina’s struggles with dispiriting ease. And the Ontario government’s recent decisions to halt the Ontario Basic Income pilot and cancel next year’s increase to the minimum wage seem wilfully designed to prevent the Bunners of our society from climbing out of poverty. Time may be an omnipresent pressure for individual characters in this play . . . but the play also makes abundantly clear at a macro level how little has actually changed since their time.
Audiences used to seeing Ms Power’s comedic chops on television will be moved by her performance as the naively self-absorbed, beauty-craving Evelina who can “see” symphonic music in vivid colour. The role leverages the range of her talents, honed over years of work and training. It was not very long ago that Ms Power (who is originally from Middle Cove, outside St. John’s, Newfoundland) graduated from Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Performance program. She then studied improvisation at the famed The Second City in their Conservatory program. Finally, for the past two years, she has been a member of the Soulpepper Academy. Both dedicated and hardworking, Ms Power has continued to work while she learns, in shows ranging from Shakespearean plays to Canadian musicals. She has been recognized with a Canadian Screen Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work as car rental agency boss Shannon in the award-winning series Kim’s Convenience, a show that also centres on family. Perhaps the bigger accolade is the warm welcome she receives in homes across the country. “I think what I love most about Shannon is the fact that while she often gets tripped up with her thoughts and intent, she is always trying to do the right thing.” The other thing she loves? “I really appreciate playing a character that embraces and finds joy in the ‘weirdness’.” Ms Power sees Shannon’s appeal stemming from the way she bucks stereotypes: “So often we see characters similar to Shannon being the ‘sidekick’, the awkward best friend to the ‘leading lady’,” a reductive predictability she declares “boring”.
The show has struck a chord with multi-generations. With Netflix streaming it internationally, its popularity has expanded beyond Canada, which means that Ms Power’s skills are being appreciated (quite literally) the world over. And she declares herself “excited” for audiences to see season three. Studiously avoiding spoilers, she divulges only that “all of the relationships are strengthened and explored on a deeper level. Shannon has grown and has more confidence.” What has brought her the most joy as part of Kim’s Convenience is the audience’s engagement and reaction. She is gratified by the fact that “families are finding they can all sit down to watch and share a show together” in a show “where they finally see themselves represented on screen.” (CBC reciprocated this affection in an unprecedented move to renew it for a 4th season before the 3rd season had even begun production.)
In the meantime, Sisters, which I attended with my husband and 14-year-old son this week, is a show which is equally resonant and evocative for multiple generations. And as my son will attest, it is almost uncomfortably accessible, even to those more at home with modern stories in modern settings. After the show’s end, we found that the story, the elegant staging, and the richness of the performances left us much to discuss as we pondered the two sisters’ divergent fates. Though Kim’s Convenience will not return until 2019, time to see Ms Power’s dramatic turn in Sisters is ticking loudly, with the finale approaching on September 16.
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What: Sisters by Rosamund Small, based on the novella Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton; Directed by Peter Pasyk; Performed by Kevin Bundy (Mr Ramy), Laura Condlln (Ann), Nicole Power (Evelina), Ellora Patnaik (Lady with the Puffed Sleeves), Raquel Duffy, (Waitress, Sister Geraldine), Karen Robinson (Mrs Mellins)
Who: Audiences 13 years of age and older
When: On stage until September 16, 2018; running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
*An interactive workshop precedes the September 12th matinee. Details here
Where: Michael Baillie Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya