It’s difficult to discuss the history of arts and culture in Vernon without coming across the name Sveva Caetani.
Her role in crafting the city’s artistic community is unparalleled, and in celebration of her life, Powerhouse Theatre shares her story in Sveva, running at the theatre Oct. 18-28.
For the original play, as part of their Canada 150 celebrations, Powerhouse Theatre brought in professional director Kevin McKendrick and playwright Janet Munsil to create the exclusive production.
“The play itself, like most good plays, is about relationships,” McKendrick said, adding that the play follows not only Caetani’s relationship with the community, but her relationship with her family as well.
Sveva was uprooted from Rome in 1921, when her father Leone — an Italian nobleman — sought to escape Mussolini’s fascist regime, bringing his daughter Sveva and his mistress Ofelia Fabiani.
“Some say he spun the globe and his finger landed on Vernon,” McKendrick said, adding that Leone was an avid hunter who had visited the beautiful British Columbian backwoods prior to the Caetanis’ relocation.
However, not all members of the family were so thrilled.
“Ofelia wants nothing to do with Vernon,” McKendrick said.
To satisfy Ofelia’s highfalutin tastes, the family visited home often, until money became tight and they could no longer afford the luxury trips.
Sveva and Leone were close until his death in 1935, when suddenly Ofelia and Sveva’s relationship took a turn.
“A really big part of the play is the relationship between a mother and daughter,” McKendrick said. “When Sveva’s father dies, Ofelia kind of guilts her into staying home.”
Then a young adult, having recently lost her father, Sveva was condemned to a life of solitude, spending the majority of her time in her family’s wooden home on Pleasant Valley Road.
“For 24 years, she’s like a house prisoner. All she has is her books. Her mother won’t even allow her to paint,” McKendrick said. “Divine Comedy was an important book for her father. When he died, he told her to learn this book.”
After more than two decades spent indoors with little connection to the outside world, Ophelia passed away and Sveva left home. She’s 42-years-old with no money and no education, but she could reconnect with her love of art.
Utilizing her newfound freedom to paint and a worldview forged from literature, Sveva went to work and her series of 56 large-scale paintings Recapitulation was born.
“Recapitulation chronicles Sveva’s take on hell, purgatory and heaven,” McKendrick said, adding that a partial inspiration for the series stemmed from her father’s love of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. “She has a worldview through literature and her imagination. She was able to access her imagination like most can’t. (It’s) discovering the artist in you by looking at the world through a lens that’s a little bit wider.”
In time, Sveva reconnected with the community and eventually pursued an education and became an art instructor in Lumby.
Wrought with hardships and familial obligation, Sveva follows themes of coping with dysfunction in families and our relationships with ourselves and our community.
“When we do encounter diversity, how do we handle those waves?” McKendrick said. “Some react with fear and some are more mystified.”
In our world of immigration and the ongoing refugee crisis, Sveva’s story is just as relevant as ever, McKendrick said.
“We’re faced with a situation today where we have strangers in our midst that we’re trying to come to terms with,” he said.
And it’s a message that is woven throughout the Powerhouse production.
“Theatre at its best should provoke yet entertain. The piece should be provocative, not just in subject matter but how it’s shown,” McKendrick said. “We certainly have a diet for entertainment in the form of television and movies that tell us what to think. In theatre, you make your own decision on what’s right and what’s wrong. If people don’t come out of that going, ‘Wow, it moved me,’ if that doesn’t happen, we’ve missed the mark. But we have been working hard to ensure that happens.”
Despite the biting message, McKendrick said at its core, theatre is still a form of entertainment.
“The play that Janet has given us is highly impressionistic. As a viewer, you just have to come and experience it,” McKendrick said. “You’re never going to understand everything about life, it’s too complex… It’s not a traditional play even though it has traditional elements.”
Boasting a 20-person cast with performers ranging from ages eight to 78, Sveva is a local story that showcases local talent.
And for Sveva, that was the ultimate goal: bringing art back to the community.
“Art doesn’t have to be inaccessible. Art is in our watches and our dinner plates. Art isn’t something we should be afraid of.”
Powerhouse Theatre presents Sveva Oct. 18-28, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. matinees Oct. 22 and Oct. 28. Tickets are available for $28 for adults and $22 for students from the Ticket Seller, 250-249-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.