Skagway, Alaska, at the end of the nineteenth century: the gold rush has dried up and the town is fading fast. Three women face up to an uncertain future, but in order to do so they have to confront secrets from their shared past.
Karen Ardiff’s new play sets up a highly original premise. In Skagway features an all-female cast in what is generally thought of as a masculine setting. The story is intriguing. It sees former famous actress Frankie (Angeline Ball) debilitated by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, and as the story unfolds we learn of Frankie’s complex relationships with May (Geraldine Alexander) and her daughter T-belle (Kathy Rose O’Brien).
From the cast, it’s Geraldine Alexander as May who stands out. Her default position is cheery denial over the severity of Frankie’s debilitation which is equally matched with compassion for her stricken friend and for her daughter. She finds the most nuances in her characterisation, retaining an affecting vulnerability. Angeline Ball is never wholly convincing as a stroke victim, but makes up for those shortcomings with a commanding portrayal of a vain and manipulative actress during flashbacks. Kathy Rose O’Brien’s T-Belle is the least outwardly showy character, but she drives the plot forward with a gutsy portrayal, bringing haunting moments of tearful anger. It’s refreshing that none of the characters is entirely moral, but universally amoral: reflecting the difficulty of simply surviving in the harsh and bleak conditions.
Whilst the story is not without interest, it feels structurally off-kilter. Leaving Frankie mute in the ‘present tense’ means that much of the story unfolds through exposition-heavy dialogue whilst characters talk at her, which is often clumsy but actually works better than the flashback sequences that adopt a dream-like quality and which quickly feel intrusive. The subplot involving Frankie dancing for the locals that brings in a fourth character, town floozie Nelly (Natasha Starkey) is a contrived way of tying up the story, and Nelly should arguably remain an off-stage character, better left to the audience’s imagination. The end result is that whilst the play has an captivating story, but the playwright hasn’t necessarily found the best way of telling it.
The harsh reality of life in Alaska is neatly evoked by effective open design (Natasha Piper), and Katherine Williams’ lighting reflects both the environment and the dream quality of the flashbacks.
Despite a few reservations about the story’s execution, there’s enough here of interest to warrant a look, especially the all-female cast and unusual subject matter.