If, like myself, you've never read W. O. Mitchell's famous Canadian novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, you're currently at a loss. Your loss stems from the craft of Mitchell's story, the way he humanizes life on the prairies and personalizes growing up. The story is about religion, but it is by no means religious. It's about a family, without being too centered around life at home. And it's about a small town, without shutting out the outside world. If you've never read Who Has Seen the Wind, you've missed out on an amazing story about living without leaving anyone's life out.
Enter Alberta Theatre Projects, currently producing Lee MacDougall's stage adaptation of Mitchell's powerful novel, giving those of us who haven't been properly introduced a hilariously funny and beautifully touching gateway into Brian O'Connal's life.
The play follows the life of Brian as he moves from adolescence to his teens on the Saskatchewan prairies. He battles school, family, death and his own struggle to understand the world around him. Meanwhile, the townspeople become engulfed in gossip and politics, cope with the Great Depression and some even fall in love. One family, a father and son both named Ben, is ostracized by the town, while the younger Ben captivates Brian's interest and draws ire from those around him.
The story is very focused, and tackles very specific events in a very particular setting. At the same time, however, it transcends any barriers this setting may provide.
"It's about the mysteries of life," says Caden Douglas, who plays Forbsie, Brian's best friend. "It's about asking questions and, maybe not getting answers, but beginning to deal with the major issues one deals with in life like religion, family, the birds and the bees, and your own emotions. You go through all the life lessons that Brian learns throughout the show."
Perhaps this is the show's charm, what makes it more than just another Canadian play by another Canadian writer. The wonderful performances by the cast, most notably Kevin Rothery who plays the narrator, principle Digby and R.W. God without fail, only serve to complement an already timeless story. However, what went into the production was key, since there are high expectations--Who Has Seen the Wind has developed something of a legacy.
"There's definitely a lot to live up to, but it makes it exciting as well," says Douglas. "Mitchell has such a tie with Calgary and the West that I think a lot of people come and see the show with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I don't think they leave unfulfilled."
Even someone who is unfamiliar with the story or Mitchell's novel has a place in the Who Has Seen the Wind audience. The reason the play works both ways, again, is the universal themes driving the story. Everyone has been through the long and tired process of growing up, and Douglas is no exception. He drew a comparison to his own memories during a scene between Brian and his abrasive teacher, Miss MacDonald.
"After rehearsing that scene, we took a break and everyone started talking about who their Miss MacDonald was," Douglas remembers. "Mine was in grade three. Everyone has had that teacher that didn't like you and you couldn't figure out why, and she was going to get you no matter what you did."