The Palace Theatre is kicking off the nation’s 150th celebration by calling on one of Canada’s most prolific playwrights to help take audiences through a conversation on loyalty, friendship and sisterhood.
It might sound strange to some that conversation is set in a Kansas brothel in the Wild West of 1870, but for director Debra Chantler it makes perfect sense.
“It’s a story about relationships between women. It’s a bittersweet story. It’s about a very hard profession, but it’s handled in a very comedic way; it’s a very funny play,” Chantler said. “It’s very well written; Norm Foster is obviously a master at what he does. There is a dark side to the story, but it’s handled with a lot of care and a lot of humour. There are some really poignant moments too. There’s a nice balance between drama and comedy in this piece.”
Running at the Palace from Jan. 12-22, Jenny’s House Of Joy — if one is to go strictly by the synopsis — tells the tale of, “Five engaging, raucous, and life-loving ‘working’ women who set the record straight on what it takes to live and love on the frontier.”
But for Chantler, the story is more in-depth.
It’s a story about relationships in the house, Chantler adds, and how they are impacted when a woman escaping her husband enters the house looking for a job.
Her presence, and her personality, then changes the whole hierarchy of the situation and how things work in the house. It also changes the relationships between the women.
“It’s a big family, they fight like sisters, but they love each other like sisters too. There is a whole theme of loyalty and friendship and sisterhood that happens in this play,” she said. “You get a real understanding of how these ladies are living on the edge of society and aren’t accepted and all the things that go along with that socially.”
It’s a relevant conversation today, Chantler adds, because in today’s world there is “this current of you can say anything and it’s OK, and a lot of the stuff being said today is not OK.”
It’s a story about how these women find friendship and loyalty in each other, along with the understanding they will always have someone who will stand beside them, regardless of social standing.
As one might expect from a Norm Foster story, Chantler said there are some poignant moments as well; conversations that speak to those hard moments of life these women lead.
“A lot of these women aren’t in this position because they want to be. Rather they are forced into it because of circumstances. That isn’t the case with these ladies,” Chantler said. “There is independence, as well, in their decisions. This isn’t women being controlled by men; it’s not a pimp thing. They have a home, they have a family, they have relationships; they don’t necessarily want to be there, but circumstances have led them to this.”
Jenny’s House Of Joy is Chantler’s second directorial experience, having contributed a good deal of producing, costume design, and “stuff behind the scenes” during her theatre career.
Directing, she explains, feels like “a natural step,” and one she has fully embraced.
It’s also provided her with a welcome respite from some of the painful moments in her own life in recent months.
“It’s phenomenal to see my vision up on that stage. I’ve lived, breathed and ate Jenny since August,” Chantler said. “It’s been a godsend for me, too, because my father is extremely ill; we just put him in hospice. So Jenny has, for me, been a real source of joy. The cast has worked really hard and have made me laugh every time I come in. We’re like our own family too.”