Bless my sister’s soul for having the foresight to purchase an extra ticket for yours truly to catch the one woman play “Alias Grace” last night at the KL Perfoming Arts Centre. It was free seating and being ‘kiasu’ Malaysians we naturally found ourselves sitting in the very first row, a meter and a half from the edge of the stage. The stage area itself was narrow as there was this huge wooden multi-faceted panel placed in the middle of it. Seemingly random phrases and words are scrawled across the surfaces, simulating the pages of a book, I guess, to highlight the fact that this play is adapted from Magaret Atwood’s tome of the same name. Rose petals are strewn on the stage guarded by two wooden chairs on both ends.
Australian Caroline Lee is a powerhouse of acting chops, balancing twisted innocence with violent intelligence. The story is set in 19th century Canada and revolves around the mysterious double murder of one Thomas Kinnear and his mistress Nancy Montgomery. Of the two who were accused of the heinous crime, one was hung at the gallows while the other, Grace Marks, was incarcerated in an asylum. She was 16 at the time.
Grace recounts her life through a series of interviews with the young Dr. Simon Jordan, an early practitioner of Psychiatry, a new branch of medical science at the time. In turns funny and haunting, Grace tells of her family’s migration from poverty-stricken Ireland to Canada. During the journey her mother dies and is cast off the ship into icy waters while her children watch in horror, forever damaged.
Condemned to a life of servitude, she moved from one household to another as a chambermaid catering to the whims and fancies of the rich and famous. Beneath the opulent veneer of high society, lies the treacherous world of scullery politics. Handicapped by poverty, servants etch out a living any which way they can, occasionally pushed into clandestine affairs with their employers. As an illustration, Grace recounts the tragic story of her best friend, Mary Whitney, who gets involved with her master’s son and resolves to get an abortion with borrowed money. She bled to death in the arms of Grace.
In her monologue, Caroline Lee takes on different parts, capturing the tone and nuances of a bumbling Dr. Simon Jordan, the boorish James McDermott who hung for his part in the murders and various members of the gentrified Canadian upper class. She imbues the main character with a barely contained lust for life and the ensuing frustration at her lack of it brought on by crushing poverty. Thrust into the world thus, she floats like a fallen leaf on murky waters until the fateful day when she is elevated to the status of ‘celebrated murderess’. Until the end we are never sure if she did indeed have a hand in the crime and that resonates with the power of mystery that the story would have lacked if it had ended otherwise.
There could have been worse ways to spend a Saturday evening.