Theatre performance rich in prairie imagery

Writer celebrated | W.O. Mitchell’s son visited birthplace of father and took in a theatrical adaptation of his radio series

WEYBURN, Sask. — There are times in every prairie kid’s life when a unique character or a memorable event creates a lasting impression.

Sometimes, those characters and events leave a mark so indelible that they shape not only the kid’s character, but also his career and perception of life itself.

Such was the case with W.O. Mitchell, a Saskatchewan boy who grew up in Weyburn, Sask., and became one of Canada’s most beloved and celebrated novelists, playwrights and narrators.

“I think he put the Prairies on Canada’s literary map,” said W.O.’s son, Orm Mitchell, who was in Weyburn last week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth.

“In all of his work, you could hear the wind, you could smell the prairie smells and you could hear the salty expressions of the people who lived on the land,” he said

“He was a writer who very much believed that you had to appeal to the reader’s senses, so he was constantly striving for images that would capture that.”

W.O., who garnered critical acclaim for his 1947 novel Who Has Seen The Wind, grew up among the gophers, coyotes, dust, wind and colourful characters that gave southern Sask-atchewan its unique character in the mid-20th century.

His writing, much of it set in the fictional town of Crocus, Sask., was drenched in prairie imagery and based on memories that were etched during his childhood.

W.O.’s connection with the Prairies and his influence on Canadian literature were celebrated in August in a theatrical adaptation of his musings called Jake and The Kid: Prairie Seasons at Weyburn’s Tommy Douglas Performing Arts Centre.

The theatre is a former Calvary Baptist Church, constructed in 1906 by prairie residents and local volunteers. In the 1980s, it was moved to Weyburn and converted into the centre.

The building, a Canadian historical site, was the first and only church served by former Saskatchewan premier and father of medicare Tommy Douglas.

The play, adapted by James B. Douglas from W.O.’s CBC radio series Jake and the Kid, was a collection of memories and tall tales as professed by the somewhat exaggerative Jake Trumper, played by Dave Frayn, and perceived by the Kid, played by Ross van De Weyer.

Addressing a crowd seated in wooden church pews, Orm shared his thoughts on W.O.’s writing, roots in Weyburn, connection with prairie people and remarkable ability to illustrate the events and characters that typified Prairie life in the post-Depression era.

”The Jake and the Kid series, when it was being broadcast on CBC … really resonated with listeners and it wasn’t just Prairie people that appreciated it,” said Orm.

“It was people from across Canada, from B.C. clear across to the other side of the country.

“He was so good at depicting small town community life … and he managed to create characters and situations that really resonated with people and helped to shape Canadian culture.”

W.O.’s prose and dialogue were always coloured with local charm, Orm said.

“He really had an ear for the poetry of the working man’s language … the man who worked close to the soil and close to the elements.”

Orm’s wife Barb said the years that W.O. spent in the Weyburn area observing the prairie skies, landscape, colour and characters affected him and shaped his writing for years to come.

“He wrote about (Prairie life) so beautifully and that’s why people still appreciate his work today … because he’s writing about their lives and their landscape,” she said.

“I think he’s still regarded as the classic prairie writer, one who really described the Prairies more beautifully and more particularly than any other writer.”

Connie Nightingale, who directed and produced the performance for the Crocus 80 Theatre, said it was fitting that the theatre group and the community paid tribute to W.O.

“The members of our community really appreciated it and were able to stop and reminisce and remember the characters in W.O’s stories and W.O. himself,” she said.

“It’s very nice to take a step back in time and remember when we were that small prairie community because those small community values still resonate in most of us.”

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