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Gravel Run

Two act black comedy by Alberta playwright, Conni Massing. It premiered at playRites ’88 on January 6, 1988, with Ray Hunt as Papa, Pat Armstrong as Mama, Weston McMillan as Billy, Brian Linds as Len, and Christine MacInnis as Leona, and was directed by Stephen Heatley. Set and designs were by Warren Carrie, costumes by Joan Murphy, music by Allan Rae.

The action takes place in the home of the Sorenson family, in a small prairie town. The living room is full of Papa’s collection of multicoloured jars, containing rendered animal fat, and shelved in front of a window so that they are illuminated by natural light. The worn furniture is covered with doilies, and the walls with plaques.

Gravel Run is subtitled “A Gothic Comedy”: the atmosphere is charged with mystery and an undercurrent of horror. The family relationships are twisted and deformed. A claustrophobic domestic environment is established through the cluttered set, almost a parody of “prairie realism” in which every dust collector and trashy trinket is lovingly preserved and displayed. Papa Sorenson’s jars constitute a bizarre intrusion of the odd in the ordinary, or the irrational and sinister. Papa’s deepest wish is to add human fat to his collection. Like a domesticated Dr. Frankenstein, he forecasts the weather by scrutinizing the squiggles and swirls in his jars, but they also seem to presage domestic turmoil. Just after Papa notes that “Something’s gonna happen, isn’t it?” Mama announces that their daughter, Leona, is returning home with “big news” after an absence of five years at university. Mama has a tenuous grasp of reality: she keeps a family photograph album to prove the existence of an absent exemplary daughter named Sarah, who may or may not have existed. She attempts to get her husband’s attention through a litany of domestic disasters in the neighbourhood and the country. The son, Billy, is a repressed psychopath who smashes cars down to playing card size at Cliff’s Wreck and Tow. He carries a baseball bat around the house like a weapon, and is just barely kept in control by Papa. Billy is preoccupied with Leona in more than a brotherly way, and anticipates a happy reunion until he learns that she is bringing her fiancé with her.

The family’s precarious reconstructed reality is threatened, as in Sam Shepard’s gothic play, Buried Child, by the intrusion of an outsider, Leona’s fiancé. Ironically, Len is an anthropologist, who studies “primitive societies,” and he finds lots of material in this small prairie town, with its “bizarre customs” such as the “gravel run” – singing and drinking and driving along gravel roads and ditches, going to bush parties and necking under the stars, juiced up by a bottle of Five Star. The “gravel run” is a rite of passage for both Leona and Billy, and for Leona’s former boyfriend, who has been dispatched in a “hunting accident” by Papa, because, as Papa reluctantly explains, “it was for … the best. The best for Mama” (Act I, scene 6).

Mama is the centre of the family, wholly preoccupied with cooking vast amounts of food, which she forces on reluctant victims. But in Len, she finds a willing recipient, since he has been deprived of family nurturing, and he is fattened up like a pig for the slaughter, and “sucked into the centre of the house” (Act II, scene 4) like a surrogate son. Leona becomes increasingly desperate, and finally leaves with her brother on the ultimate gravel run to California, while Len remains to fulfill the domestic needs of Mama. However, it is Mama who cuts Leona free from her wedding dress, liberating her daughter from her recurring nightmare of entrapment.

Gravel Run has much in common with Harold Pinter’s “comedies of menace,” which use domestic metaphors to break down psychological defenses against problematic areas of experience. The familiar becomes strange and menacing, and refamiliarizes us with a shudder of recognition to what we have repressed.

Gravel Run was published by Blizzard in 1991, and by Playwrights Canada Press in the anthology, The Alberta Advantage in 2008 (edited by Anne Nothof).

Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2021-01-11