Dorianne Kohl still remembers the creak of the floorboards as she stepped inside the old community hall to give her first performance of Portrait of a Lady – A Tribute to Margaret Laurence on home turf.
Kohl had just arrived back on Canadian soil to tour the one-woman play, adapted by playwright George Ryga and based on Laurence’s famous novel The Stone Angel.
A former Summerland resident, Kohl and her husband, Ken Smedley, a Kamloops native who has directed Portrait since its inception, were living in the small Mexican city of Ajijic, near Guadalajara, where the play was first launched 32 years ago.
The couple, then with three young children, was encouraged to bring Portrait to Canada, and the intimate Hulcar Hall, located just north of Armstrong, seemed like the ideal starting point.
“The hall was built in the same era as the book. It was heated by an old wood stove and had old wooden seats. There was this rich ambiance about it –– the creaky stage –– that loaned itself to the atmosphere,” said Kohl. “I remember the headlights coming down the road, and being relieved that people were coming to see it.”
That was back in 1987, coincidently the same year that both Laurence and Ryga died, and Kohl, who now calls Armstrong home, has continued to slip into Hagar Shipley’s skin as easily as brushing the long hair that cascades down her back.
She reprises the role when Portrait of a Lady tours around the Okanagan (Kohl’s last performance took place in Vernon five years ago) in lieu with the handing out of this year’s George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature, Oct. 1 in Summerland.
In The Stone Angel, Hagar Shipley narrates the pivotal moments of her life as she grows older. She reveals her innermost fears and regrets, at times tragic, other times humorous.
“There’s something tender about the time line. It’s circular,” said Kohl, who recently turned 70.
“As one ages, matures and gets older, we have a better understanding of the vulnerability of age. As an actress, I have been gifted with the ability to re-create those moments, feeling them urgently myself. I share these intimate moments through dialogue –– the lines extrapolated from the character in the book.”
In the play, Kohl shows Hagar at the different stages in her life –– from the young, mischievous girl who marries Brampton Shipley and eventually becomes a shell of her former self.
“When I transfer the old Hagar to the young Hagar, I feel it inside. My posture literally changes, my back straightens and I’ll remember something joyful,” said Kohl. “ (The play) is not all sadness and remorse, there’s lots of joy as well.”
Kohl can also better relate to Laurence, who said the character of Hagar kept coming back to her –– an insistent voice that eventually became a character.
Through Hagar, Laurence caught the fleeting moments of aging in poetic and poignant language, even if it wasn’t all that pretty.
“The poetry in it is amazing. It’s the reason I love this piece so much. When I say the lines I get goose bumps all over. She personifies in the piece a person who doesn’t want to feel, who disconnects from her emotions and the men in her life,” said Kohl, repeating a line Hagar speaks in the book: “Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear.”
“I understand that more. I don’t rush through life as much as I did in my 40s or 50s. I am now breathing in moments, such as what the sun feels like on a particular day and what the earth feels like to walk on. I have a better sense of being.”
The book, she says, also informs both males and females about the dangers of oppression and internalized emotion, and how that can impact upon our health and well-being.
Kohl has also been able to learn that lesson through her own mother.
Like Hagar, Kohl’s mother grew up in a rural part of the Prairies, the oldest of 10 children to a poor family with strong Christian ethics.
“She, like Hagar, married young, forsaking her own dreams of becoming a nurse,” said Kohl. “Her life was fraught with illness and oppression, and raising four children through the Depression and severe economic and emotional stress, she sublimated her own needs to keep the peace with a controlling, temperamental man. She suffered inwardly, which caused disease in her heart, lungs, liver and female organs.”
Kohl’s mother died at the age of 71 from bronchial pneumonia.
“It left me with a complex legacy to sort out. I had to decide whether I would follow in her footsteps, or work to contradict her model of martyrdom.”
Kohl chose a different life, and though her work as an artist, (including a successful modelling and acting career) she has been able to evolve, and therefore, better understand Hagar. She has also had a lot of support from Smedley, who initially encouraged and directed Kohl to debut Portrait in Mexico.
“He’s a thorough director and you can’t get away with anything, but he has also encouraged me to go to my own experiences as a Prairie girl growing up. It’s added depth to the piece.”
For this upcoming tour, Kohl and Smedley have also enlisted the help of lighting director Beverley Peacock, who has worked on shows at Caravan Farm Theatre.
“I am looking forward to working with her. I’m sure she will bring sensitivity to the piece and all of its emotional ups and downs,” said Kohl.
The tour of Portrait of a Lady will be presented in the North Okanagan at the Centennial Theatre in Armstrong Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. (Tickets are at The Brown Derby restaurant in Armstrong. Call 250-546-8221), and Oct. 6 at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre at 8 p.m. (Tickets are at The BookNook in Vernon. Call 250-558-0668.)
Kohl will also take the performance to Summerland’s Centre Stage Theatre for the Ryga award ceremony, where B.C. writer Richard Wagamese will be recognized for his winning entry, One Story, One Song, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets for the evening are $20 and available at the Okanagan College Bookstore in Kelowna (250-862-5622) or at the door.