Beyond a Theatre Review: Spoon River at Soulpepper

I’m sad that I didn’t write this review until today, when there’s only one more chance to see Soulpepper’s production of Spoon River. But, I was busy living life and feeding my soul–I can excuse myself.

When my friend Kaye invited me with her to see Spoon River, I was a bit apprehensive because I’d never attended the theatre with her and because the piece we would be attending was a musical–a form I think is sometimes too lauded at the cost of straight plays and other performance. I’ve also never had a perfect experience at Soulpepper. The first show I attended may have broke barriers in South Africa and included a full stage of figurines and beautifully grotesque statues, but it bored me more than anything I’d seen in Toronto thus far. Angels in America was quite the spectacle, but I still didn’t feel invited in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Spoon River invited Kaye, Jordan (her guide dog), and I into its story and space as soon as they took our tickets.

Kaye didn’t get to see the hallway of portraits leading to the open casket of Bertie Hume or the darkened trees and tombstones we wove through as the costumed cast members directed us across the stage to our seats. But she could feel the mood in the room, the way something new was happening. I was impressed. I’d seen smaller theatre houses play with audience immersion, but never in a bigger auditorium like Soulpepper’s Young Center space. And more importantly, it did put us in the show much faster than simply walking to our seats would have done. The homily ended at the top of the show, the ghosts buried in the graveyard whispered–raising the hairs on the back of my neck–and as soon as the first chords plunged through the room, I could see most of the audience on the edge of their seats clapping and engaged.

Of course, there were other reasons this show had a great impact on me. First, it’s based on poems from the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. As I kept watching these souls from the graves in Illinois-based made-up small town rise up and tell their stories–joyful and gut-wrenching, terrifying and life-affirming at once and not–I realized Spoon River took the most interesting part of one of the most-produced American “classics,” Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and expanded it. It didn’t worry about running through life, using a few mimed actions and two families to represent all of existence, but instead spoke to the souls from across the divide.

I didn’t come to the theatre in the calmest of moods. After a day of meetings and attempts at writing, I didn’t feel like I had been productive. But through this anxiety, I could still feel the folk music pumping through the theatre and the earnest declarations of the souls gathered. It reached through the anxiety I carried from my day-to-day and reminded me that I wasn’t alone and that I had the chance to do something “productive” with each breath: live life. I cried when Bertie Hume sang her portion of the closing number “Soul Alive” because as she stepped out from the coffin into the group of gathered souls, I could see the recognition in her eyes. Even in death, never alone. When I write, I feel alone in my room, forced to turn off social media and place my phone far away. I have to cut myself off from the relationships that inspire and fuel my creativity in order to create anything. But that is life. And that is death in life, life in death.

I’ve tried to listen to the soundtrack every day since I sat as a “passerby” in the graveyard of Spoon River. As my favorite line reminds me: “if your soul’s alive, let it feed.”


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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