MAA & PAA Theatre specializes in plays about forgotten stories from Alberta’s past. This year’s production is a little different.
For this year’s Fringe play, playwright David Cheoros did not have a lot of source material to work with. The December 29, 1921 edition of the Big Valley News had reported that a house “occupied and owned by a woman named Hastings” was destroyed by fire. The one-paragraph item contained a few other tantalizing details, but there was nothing to substantiate the town rumour that Hastings’s house was actually a brothel that vengeful townswomen had burned to the ground. “So we made this up,” MAA & PAA admit in the playbill for The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921.
The resulting play has less of a documentary feel than some of their previous work, such as Witch Hunt at the Strand, which was pulled together from reams of legal documentation. Instead, The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921 relies on characterization to create the feeling you’ve been dropped into a conversation between two women of early 20th century Alberta. “Mrs.” (she isn’t really married) Hastings is the madam. Her friend and some-time antagonist is Mrs. Smith, an upstanding Christian woman who runs a boarding house for wayward girls. Delightfully, Fringe veterans Sue Huff as Mrs. Hastings and Linda Grass as Mrs. Smith breathe life into characters that are both grounded in reality and larger than life.
The differences between Mrs. Hastings and Mrs. Smith are both vast and razor-thin. They begin to understand each other over several conversations, and through the conversations, the audience gets to know the characters, the social realities for women, living conditions for miners, roles for early Chinese-Canadian workers, the influence of the church, and other aspects of early 20th century Alberta.
Being set in Big Valley in 1921, the town already had some settler history. It had boomed with the gold strike, and by 1921 was learning how to be a real town. The town’s growing pains constitute an underlying theme of the play, and feel relevant to early 21st century Edmonton, a city that is constantly striving to define itself.
Kudos to the MAA & PAA team for an engaging and illuminating what-if of Alberta history.
The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921 is playing in Venue 13: The Old Strathcona Library.