Armstrong’s history comes alive

To celebrate the city's 100th anniversary, Asparagus Community Theatre puts on a show that dips into the past

Thankfully, as a society, we’ve come a long, long way since that fateful night in Armstrong, circa 1919, at a school board meeting.

There was Mayor (and school board president) James (Big Jim) Wright presiding over the meeting with four school board members – two men and two women. One of the ladies had the courage to challenge a long-standing rule about women not being able to ride in a motor vehicle unless it was with her father or brother.

What would the new teacher coming to Armstrong do?

As Mayor Wright pointed out, the teacher hadn’t even been hired yet.

However, one of the dastardly male members stood up and broke out into a song called Whoever Said a Woman Was A Person?

It was one snippet of Armstrong’s 100-year history, brought to the stage wonderfully by Asparagus Community Theatre, and the scene that garnered the biggest laugh in playwright Peter Blacklock’s whimsical musical, All About The People.

George Young was perfectly cast as the curmudgeonly school board member who didn’t believe women were persons, and his song was magnificently rebutted by female school board member Laurisa Defehr.

Young, Defehr and 12 others played multiple roles in the two-hour play (most notably the competent Bryce Hunt, who portrayed five characters, all different).

Andrew Laird, who did a great job as Wright, and Lindsay Grout as the conductor/narrator, were the only members of the 16-person cast to play one character.

Grout is one of the keys to the play, as he portrays a conductor at the Armstrong train station built right in the centre of town, and guides “sight-seers,” ie, the audience, on a historical tour of how Armstrong came to be.

“The railway was important to the foundation of the city,” said Grout.

You learn a lot about Armstrong in two hours. You learn the town started in an area called Lansdowne, and moved to its current sight when the railway was built through the middle of a bog.

We find out there’s a rural neighbouring municipality called Spallumcheen and that there could be problems between it and a new city.

Directors of the Armstrong fair bucked a trend to join Vernon as one large Okanagan entry for the Dominion Fair of 1905 in New Westminster, and decided its own Interior Provincial Exhibition must become bigger than just a one-day event.

And, of course, there’s the people.

We are introduced to those who helped carve out Armstrong such as Wright (and we learn 1,000 people attended his funeral); Donald Matheson (Hunt), the first IPE president; Mrs. Wolfenden (Sharon Wickstrom), wife of Armstrong Advertiser publisher Frank Wolfenden; blacksmith Henry Hope (Young), actors Lee Morris (Mandy Penner) and Bertha Morris (Wickstrom), who left town after their beloved theatre was lost in a fire; and, in the most poignant moment of the show, Louie Non Chip Jung and her daughter (beautifully played by Asia and Alayna Jong), wife and daughter of a Chinese farmer, who told the audience they were not counted as people.

Blacklock wrote five original songs for the performance with musical accompaniment supplied by the Pleasant Valley Boys – Allen Bensmiller on guitar, George Bensmiller on accordion and fiddle and Cameron Shook on upright bass.

All were snappy numbers which had the audience clapping their hands.

Speaking of original, the audience gets to see Armstrong grow as pieces of the town are added scene by scene, so kudos to set designer Maryke Simmonds.

Aptly directed by Paul Kirkwood-Hackett, All About The People scores a hit, a terrific salute to a terrific community celebrating its centennial.

All About The People runs July 3 to 6 at  8 p.m. at Asparagus Community Theatre (Centennial Hall). Reservations can be made at The Guy Next Door, 3450A Okanagan St., 250-546-0950.