Blyth Festival, 2003

Signal Star
Tim Cumming

When the Blyth Festival’s new play hippie begins with a young, beautiful cast dressed in an array of 1960’s-1970’s flower-power fashion there is a fear the play could turn into the anachronisms and false rings of That 70s Show. When the play uses the sex and drugs of Woodstock-era counterculture as a well-source of one-liners those two powerful forces could overshadow the much broader hopes and changes promised by that era. Fortunately, hippie is a much richer play than that. This important world premiere production has something significant to say about the people of this area and the changes they experienced. That’s high praise indeed for a new Canadian play

hippie is not an uncritical glorification of the radical ‘immigrants’ to Perth and Huron during the Woodstock era. The play is as willing to poke fun at some of the naïve ideals of the era, as it is to put them on a pedestal. But, it also forces the audience to recall that there was a group of people in this region who forced us to dramatically reevaluate who we were and who we are. hippie is about change. The strength of this new Canadian play is in its premise that everyone who lived during the counterculture revolution was changed.

The so-called ‘ hippie s’ who came here irrevocably changed the people who were already in Huron and Perth but they were also changed themselves by living among the rural residents. In that sense, the play is like another Blyth success story, The Drawer Boy.
There is not a single character in hippie who does not end up unaffected by the dramatic social upheaval in the area during the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. Even the committed Harry Finlay (played by Sean Dixon), owner of the Black Swann coffee house, has to acknowledge some change when time and financial realities force the life-changing venue to close.

The play is largely sympathetic to the folk-singing, drug-taking newcomers but it’s also mostly sympathetic to the rural people who feared the social upheaval the newcomers were instigating. One of the most poignant moments of the play comes from the character Norman Blake (also played by Dixon), a kind and devoutly Christian farmer. He gives a powerfully and articulate speech extolling the values he sees threatened by the newcomers.

The clash between reality and Woodstock-era idealism is beautifully captured in the character of Alice (played by Tara Hughes). “How was I supposed to know about the pipes freezing?” she asks at one point. “I can’t even walk into town to be laughed at,” she says at another. Abandoning the city for a naïve, back-to-the-country ideal causes her upheaval and misery. Her free-love nature and philosophy permanently changes local boy Andy Cotton (Mark Harapiak) but causes problems when she kisses her neighbour, Norman Blake.

The play ingeniously uses the advent of milk quotas and marketing boards as symbolism of change in rural Ontario and the fear of change. The play raises some questions it doesn’t entirely answer. “It’s not enough, music and ideas,” Alice says at one point. One has to “find something else,” her character implores, “but what is that something?” hippie is strongly acted with members of a strong ensemble cast believably switching between multiple roles.

Tara Hughes is wonderful as Alice, who struggles to reconcile her urbane tastes and revolutionary ideas with small-town life.

Kelly McIntosh, who co-wrote the play, is one of Blyth’s real treasures this year. Her musicianship was solid as was her double-turn as self-repressed farm wife Alma Blake and flower child Philly Richards. Gil Garratt is charismatic as folk singer and manipulative revolutionary ‘Hector’. Mark Harapiak is allowed more range in this production and is believable as Andy Cotton, the local boy torn between his conservative upbringing and the allure of sexually-free women and new ideas at the coffee house.

hippie starts as a rather superficial take on the era of free love and cheap drugs but develops into a compelling story about a significant period in our modern history when everything seemed possible.