Like Piglets, this Play Needs a Chance to Grow
Here’s the best thing about Blyth Festival: It introduces brand new Canadian works. Then it helps those plays find their place on Canadian stages. As their audience, we get to see the birth of a play, and sometimes we are allowed to see it grow.
With Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer, we see a play born on stage. In the play, we see baby piglets being born. Like the piglets, I hope this play will be given a chance to grow and mature.
A young woman, Judith, has bought a pig farm and her first purchase is 10 pregnant sows. She goes to work looking after the pigs, waiting for the babies to arrive. But immediately, we know that her heart’s not in it. Obviously she has made the choice to try farming, but we don’t know why she left a secretarial position in the city when she seems uncertain. Then some flashbacks occur. Her parents are desperately trying to get her to stay home on their pig farm, but she decides to move to the city and departs on bad terms. There are flashbacks of her relationship with her boss at her city job. Then we learn that her parents both died suddenly. Back in the present, she meets her neighbours, Mom Mina, Dad Ed and their three adult sons John, Jim and Jerry. Jim tries to befriend her and help with the pigs, but she remains, in his words, “prickly.” But Judith and Mina form an unlikely friendship, perhaps because they are the only women in the area, or perhaps Mina becomes the mother Judith lost.
So there is some mystery, relationship issues and plenty to keep our interest. Yet, there are difficulties in staying engaged. Unfortunately, Judith is not likable enough. She is too angry and defensive most of the time. We get glimpses of why she’s angry: she didn’t get along with her parents, and we speculate she is now feeling guilty because they are gone. In the rare moments she laughs or smiles, the audience sees glimpses of hope, but there aren’t enough of these. I remain optimistic for a happy ending, but we aren’t really sure that’s going to happen by the end of the play. We are also left wondering if she care at all for Jim or just wants to use him. She insults him by offering to pay for his help when he thinks he is just being neighbourly; at least, I assume that’s why he leaves abruptly.
Part way into the play we learn this is the 1970s. Unfortunately the 1970s-based plot doesn’t resonate with audiences today. A female pig farmer is not so unusual, for starters. Her attitude towards her boss, who abuses her, makes no sense today in light of the “Me, too” movement. Also, Judith keeps saying she is an adult but she’s only 23. By today’s standard, 23 is not “all grown up”, as maybe it was in 1978.
The presentation of the plot needs to offer the audience a little more to go on. It should be easier for us to see it through a 1970s’ lens. We need more information from the flashbacks to help us understand Judith’s mental state. We want to see her grow and mature as the story progresses, so that we can care about how her life unfolds.
There are some difficulties with the staging of the show. At times, the action slows down, particularly when the pigpen gates are being moved around. It happens too often and it takes too much time. Similarly, when Judith mimes feeding and watering the pigs, it happens too frequently, without adding to the story. The singing is lost: voices are not audible, and therefore the songs don’t add to the play. Audience members on the far left and right can’t see the guitar players in the wings.
The cast is strong. Georgina Beaty and Nathan Howe as Judith and Jim play off each other very well. Marion Day as Mina is charming, and her laughter is delightful. She gives Judith the friendship she so desperately needs. Graham Cuthbertson gives us a strong and nasty boss, while Tony Munch provides comic relief as the Postmaster. Daniel Roberts is good as Judith’s father with his disappointment and anger. All four male characters are excellent when they provide some laughs as the Stamby family watching the hockey game.
This play has great potential – there are several funny moments that leave you wanting more, such as the escape from the bar fight. But along with humour, the story needs emotional appeal, which as yet, isn’t adequately there. I hope it will improve with further performances.
The opening night audience was filled with members of Huron County Pork Producers, which provided one of Blyth’s famous Country Dinners, prior to the show. The pork chops were delicious! But very few of the families looked old enough to remember the 1970s. While there have been many improvements in raising pigs over the years, I hope they could still appreciate Judith’s story.
Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until August 11. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer – at forefront, Georgina Beaty as Judith; background, left to right, Graham Cuthbertson as John Stamby, Nathan Howe as Jim Stamby, Marion Day as Mina Stamby, Daniel Roberts as Jerry Stamby, and Tony Munch as Ed Stamby. Photo by Terry Manzo.
Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmers
Based on the novel “Judith” by Aritha van Herk
Adapted for the stage by Heather Davies
Directed by Jennifer Brewin
Musical Director Murray Foster
Performed by Georgina Beaty, Graham Cuthbertson, Marion Day, Nathan Howe, Tony Munch, Daniel Roberts.
June 27 to August 11, 2018
Reviewed by Mary Alderson