Review: Sisters probes haunting resonance of residential schools

Sister Mary (Kari Cowan) seeks salvation from her tortured past partly populated by her young self (Isabella Goodman) and boyfriend Louis (Harrison Kettlys) during the probing drama Sisters. - Peter W. Rusland
Sister Mary (Kari Cowan) seeks salvation from her tortured past partly populated by her young self (Isabella Goodman) and boyfriend Louis (Harrison Kettlys) during the probing drama Sisters.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

Like bygone residential schools themselves, Neighbourhood Players' gripping drama, Sisters, starkly displayed the lingering personal trauma of Canada's brutal educational system that still haunts thousands of former First Nations students.

Director Mike Moroz's five student actors, from Cowichan and Victoria, did a disturbingly authentic job portraying the aftermath of those wicked schools during Thursday's debut at Duncan's Mercury Theatre.

Viewers expecting grim tales of Native children being whipped by sadistic nuns, can forget that idea.

Instead, Wendy Lill's script by focussed on reasons well-meaning nuns naively followed a regimented curriculum aimed at assimilating Aboriginal pupils — and how those policies plagued some teachers who traded human compassion for convent commitment.

It must be stressed nuns — such as central character Sister Mary (Kari Cowan) — at the school set in the Maritimes, truly believed they were serving God by educating "Indian" students.

Cowichan's closest residential school was on Penelakut Island, formerly Kuper Island.

But while Mary evolved into a stern task-master, from a freckle-face farm girl (Isabella Goodman), Mother Agnes (Caitlin Doherty) softened her rigid stance evoked in act one.

"It's our duty," Agnes initially growled at young Mary's reasoned questions.

Caught in the cross-fire of Christian values and classroom demands was Sister Gabrielle (Abby Hodges), a rule-breaking, tulip-planting nun longing for love songs and sunny days.

The play's only reprieve from emotionally raw dialogue — as black and white as the nuns' habits — was conversation between mature, troubled Mary, and Crown lawyer Stein (Elias Whitfield), who seeks answers about why Mary torched her former school.

He comes to understand, as Mary deals with demon voices from her tortured past — perfectly summoned in flashbacks to her pre-nun days with beau Louis (Harrison Kettlys).

An eerie mix of kids singing and '60s jazz added to Mary's torment from following orders, not common sense and decency.

Lighting from spartan spotlights lent a barren mood to this play that's urgent viewing for everyone — except perhaps folks who somehow survived the notorious residential schools built by our unfeeling federal government.

Sisters may understandably be too hard for those healing people to watch.

The idea was to show viewers the brutal folly of how cultural policies can backfire, leaving innocent victims in their wake.

More volume, diction and emotion were needed at times Thursday, as we hung on each line by well-crafted characters.

Sisters asked us to question how church values can be bent by bureaucrats — most of whom have never answered for these politically backed programs.

Moroz's timely production could boil down to one simple question: which child would Jesus beat?

Sisters runs May 16 and 17, 7:30 p.m. at the Mercury Theatre on Brae Road, Duncan.

Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors, at the door.

Residential-school drama rating: 8.5 prayers out of 10.

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