Miss Caledonia has all the right measurements
Rural Route 2 in Caledonia in the 1950s isn't necessarily the setting you'd expect for a beauty pageant. The harsh realities of farm life don't exactly instill grace, poise, and charm. But it's the community at the heart of Melody A. Johnson's Miss Caledonia that makes the play so endearing.
The playwright and performer proves that giant dreams can sprout out the most humble of circumstances. With minimal set and complementing musical accompaniment by Alison Porter, Johnson draws the audience into the world of the precocious young Peggy Ann, capturing the charming spirit of youthful determinism.
Inspired by the account of her mother's beauty pageant heyday, Johnson's play follows Peggy Ann Douglas' bid to rise above the daily chores on the family farm. She finds inspiration in the form of Mary Frances Reynolds (aka Debbie Reynolds) who was discovered after winning the Miss Burbank beauty contest. Peggy Ann determines that the first step to an eventual dance with Bing Crosby is winning her local competition.
Johnson sketches the rural landscape with an expert hand, weaving together the hardships of a soggy summer on the farm with portraits of the essential figures in Peggy Ann's life. As you'd expect, the parents feature most prominently, each with a distinctive voice. Peggy Ann's mother is the nurturing core, while the father is the practical, no-nonsense barrier to Peggy's aspirations.
All of the characters are performed by Johnson, but they're from the perspective of Peggy Ann who tells the full tale. It's a nice departure from the solo show convention of the performer stepping in and out of roles.
For better or for worst we get the story from one voice. If it drags in the first half hour it can be slightly forgiven, since the home life is so wonderfully described.
Johnson's joy for the material is apparent in her performance. Peggy Ann is curious, intelligent, and resourceful. She skillfully inhabits the roles of the townsfolk, the drunk socialite and vengeful schoolteacher among the highlights.
Directors Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis have brought out the best in Johnson's text. The narrative drives towards a poignant conclusion and the minimalist design set, a bench is the only set piece, leaves the story unencumbered. Porter's musical accompaniment adds an essential rhythm.
This is charming Canadian theatre at its best—a relatable tale that peeks into the fabric of family ties.
Miss Caledonia, written and performed by Melody A. Johnson runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until November 22.
Photo by Nir Bareket