Soulpepper & Native Earth Performing Arts/Where the Blood Mixes, written by Kevin Loring, directed by Jani Lauzon, Bailey Theatre, Young Centre, June 2 to 26. Tickets here.
Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes is not a new play, but it is an important one. The work premiered in 2008 and won the Governor General’s Award the following year. Fully 13 years later, it is as relevant as it was then, perhaps even more so.
The setting is Loring’s home community of Kumsheen, also called Lytton, the heart of the N’laka’pamux Nation and Lytton First Nation. If you followed the news last year, you know about the terrible heat dome that affected British Columbia, which resulted in disastrous wildfires and flooding that wiped out 90% of Lytton, including the home of the playwright. These thoughts were certainly on my mind as I watched the play, and saw the characters struggle with the earlier disaster of the residential school.
Kumsheen/Lytton is where the Thompson and Fraser Rivers meet, which gives the play its title. Kumsheen, in the Nlaka’pamux language, means “the place inside the heart where the blood mixes”, a phrase which takes on many meanings as the play progresses.
The main characters are Floyd (Sheldon Elter) and Mooch (Craig Lauzon). Mooch gets his name from always mooching beers from Floyd (and everyone else) and stealing money from his long-suffering wife June (Valerie Planche) to play gaming machines — money that is meant to pay household bills.
Floyd seems to be more grounded than Mooch, but he comes unstuck when he receives word that his long-lost daughter Christine (Tara Sky) wants to meet with him. Floyd lost custody of Christine when his wife Ann died, and he fell apart after her death. Christine has been adopted into another family, and is in search of her roots.
The final character is the white man George (Oliver Dennis) who runs the local bar. George certainly seems to have good relationships with Floyd and Mooch, but he does state that he had nothing to do with residential schools, and so disavows any interest in the subject. June also appears to be a white woman.
Which brings us to the residential school, which is the ghost haunting the lives of the men. Through the humorous banter between Floyd and Mooch, who despite Mooch’s bad habits, are good friends, dark spots soon appear. Very funny scenes begin to slide into traumatic ones. The cleverness of Loring’s writing is that he really never spells out the actual abuses of what went on in the residential school. Rather, he alludes to them, which makes the play even more unsettling.
Loring, in the program notes, is quoted as describing the development of his characters as unwrapping an onion, layer by layer, and that is what happens in the course of the play. Painful memories that lurk beneath the surface are soon exposed, and have to be dealt with as tensions mount.
My first reaction at the play’s end is that I had just witnessed an authentic voice in the form of playwright Loring. To Indigenous people, storytelling is medicine, and in this moving play, Loring recounts both the pain of the past, and the healing that can follow. Truth and reconciliation is writ large.
Designer Ken MacKenzie has provided a set with a backdrop of two oversized screens which give us the scenery of the interior of British Columbia, as well as animated graphics of birds and fish, provided by video and projection designer Samay Arcentales Cajas. There is also a large and eye-catching mobile of papers hanging centre stage, which, I assume, are the many letters Christine wrote in an attempt to find her father. Arun Srinivasan has given us gloomy lighting, while Samantha McCue has provided the character-specific costumes.
James Dallas Smith is live on stage playing the agitated sound score he created for the show. In fact, having the live musician gives a real edge to the play as Smith documents the rising tensions that lie within the script through discordant guitars and the relentless beat of the drum.
I do have one complaint about the set, however. The play is made up of short scenes, and every time the locale changes, set pieces like the bar and tables and chairs are rolled off and rolled on by the actors. Over time, these comings and goings become very distracting. The stage does revolve, so surely the set pieces could have been permanently placed.
Jani Lauzon, who had previously done a brilliant job directing Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and his Wife for Soulpepper, had a totally different play to deal with in Where the Blood Mixes. Moses’ play is bright, pointed, sarcastic, and in your face, while Where the Blood Mixes has an almost gentle, quiet and intimate quality about it.
Happily, Lauzon has found just the right touch. Her slow build to the break-out scenes is perfectly paced. She gives us time to really meet Floyd and Mooch, so when things do go south for each of them, so to speak, we are not surprised because nerves have been steadily shredding since the play’s beginning.
The cast is strong, guided, as it is, by Lauzon’s strong character sensibility. Craig Lauzon’s Mooch is absolutely endearing; we understand why June is so devoted, and Floyd allows himself to be manipulated. Elter’s Floyd is more complex, and he really differentiates himself from Mooch in terms of intellect and perspective. There is a genuinely interesting contrast between the two that aids the play immeasurably.
Planche dominates the stage in every scene she is in. Her June is one tough cookie, and eminently watchable. Sky as Christine is the least developed of the characters, but she does radiate a suitable shy innocence until she is called upon to make a stand, and she does rise to the occasion. As for Dennis, he is one of Canada’s most accomplished actors, and even in the small role of George, he makes a statement that details practicality and a good nature, but someone who has limits.
We all know about the abuses of residential schools that currently dominate news headlines. What playwright Loring has done in Where the Blood Mixes, however, is to go behind the headlines, to delve down into the souls of Floyd and Mooch in order to reveal the inner turmoil of the survivors.
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