Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame


Editorial Review

Fringe review: 'Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame'
By Celia Wren
Monday, July 23, 2012

The old-fashioned garments dangling from a laundry line on the set of “Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame” appear to have been washed and hung out to dry with loving care. A comparable painstaking devotion seems to propel this “theatrical song cycle,” written and composed by Onalea Gilbertson, with Morag Northey and Jonathan Lewis. Principally the tale of Gilbertson’s grandmother, who lived through the Depression and World War II in Alberta, Canada, “Blanche” is intelligent, nostalgic and quietly artful. It’s hard to get excited about this dramatized family scrapbook, directed by Rachel Avery -- but you have to admire the loyal affection that brought it into being.

An artist with a beautiful voice, Gilbertson performs as singer and pianist in the 65-minute piece, whose songs sound jazzy, bluesy and modern-classical by turns. Three other musicians -- violinist Josh Henderson, guitarist Eric Richardson and cellist Brian Sanders -- also perform onstage, sometimes leaving their chairs to stand in for one of the men in Blanche’s life. Gilbertson, too, executes little bits of stage business during or between songs: Now she’s sidling up to Sanders to commemorate Blanche’s tragically short first marriage to a man named Bill; now she’s wielding a rolling pin to memorialize Blanche’s pie-making prowess; now she’s changing into a red dress, an allusion to the rollicking parties Blanche threw in the years after World War II.

Meanwhile, a sheet suspended near the laundry line catches projections of old photographs: children in early 20th-century garb; a wedding portrait; a man in military uniform. Periodically, in a voiceover, a speaker who seems to be the elderly Blanche reminisces, sometimes breaking into a zesty cackle. When you hear this wry, spirited, suffering-tested woman speak and laugh, you can almost understand the need for a theatrical tribute.