Last night, I attended the SS Ethie Dinner Theatre at the Nurse Myra Bennett for the Performing Arts-Fortis Theatre in Cow Head, Newfoundland.
I’ll pause for a second for you to process all of those details.
Okay, ready to go?
I was excited to see the show. I’d been to the theatre and tasted the food once before, but this was my first time seeing a production.
I’d read a little bit about the story of the Ethie in a small volume of articles called Breakers by Paul O’Neill, originally published between March 1974 and December 1980 in The Monitor, a tabloid supported by the Catholic Church.
(If you need a book about Newfoundland, ask the Hogans in Steady Brook, because they probably have it somewhere)
The article introduced me to the possibility that a dog, swimming from shore, had been responsible for the rescue of the ship’s passengers when it was run aground in a desperate attempt to escape a storm along the Northwest Coast of Newfoundland. Give “SS Ethie Dog” a search and you’ll find out the varying takes on the validity of this tale.
Heading into the show I knew about a dog, a ship, a storm, and the fact that things all turned out rather well for everyone onboard. Sort of seems like I had the spoilers down.
I turned up to the show expecting nice food, smiles, charismatic performances, and a good natured laugh or three, but not the most complex of storytelling. For the record, that’s no slight, that’s just what tends to come to mind when I think of dinner theatre.
I’m not about to turn your expectations totally on their head, but I admit that I’m walking away with something a little bit different than what I expected.
Amidst the food (molasses butter and buns, cod, local veg, and mason jar desserts), smiles (many), charismatic performances (shout out to the whole cast and a special high-five to Keelan Purchase for so much joy onstage), and a bunch of chuckles (when you buy-in, you buy-in) there was a real sense that the show had a point-of-view, something that resonates today.
I don’t have the script in front of me so I can’t tell you exactly when the speech happens, but towards the later stages of the story, when the Ethie is about to run aground, one of the passengers, a mother with a baby in her arms, makes a speech that sticks. She speaks about the neglect of politicians in St. John’s who refuse to replace the ship and the ship’s parent company who treat the people like paying cattle.
The speech invited me to sip my tea with a little bit more intensity and to wonder about its relevance to this moment in Cow Head’s history. I was struck by the simplicity of the request expressed in the mother’s speech — replace our boat, treat us with respect.
I’m not above a tears at the theatre, but I’ll admit that I was surprised to experience them last night.
As we drove away from the theatre, past the real-life wreck of the Ethie, my partner Kelsey reflected on what brings the story of the Ethie back to the stage year after year (the show is mounted every year). Why is this the show that sticks around? It can’t just be because it’s what the tourists want. There aren’t enough of them for that.
Is it possible that the show continues because it shows the people of Cow Head and Western Newfoundland something true about their experience? The show bears witness to resilience — figuring it out, overcoming unpredictable obstacles, pulling together — and to frustration that basic needs aren’t so basic for many people in the region.
I left the theatre thinking about the modern manifestation of, please, can you replace our ship with something that works? I thought about the opportunities for politicians and power brokers to address basic needs directly — to replace the proverbial ship, rather than fund a company to hire some people to build a ship that could someday be purchased by the government so that a community could pay a fare to get from one side of the island to the other.
In my experience, the question of movement across the island of Newfoundland continues to be one of great concern. It seems to me that regular folks — people who just want to keep families connected, cultural ties strong, or stories alive — ought to be able to move around the island with more ease than is possible right now. That it is expensive and inconvenient seems a matter of some resignation rather than a problem that is likely to be addressed. For example, in September I’ll travel from Halifax to St. John’s for far less money than the cost of going from Deer Lake to St. John’s (west to east across the island). There are reasons for this, of course, but I don’t think that the reasons are good enough to accept.
What are today’s replacement ships? Who is calling for them to be replaced? What would help those with with the least amount of economic power the ability to move through the province? What if instead of subsidizing companies to figure out the answers, the government got back in the business of answering these questions directly? Are fully subsidized flights, bus routes, and ferry corridors really impossible? Is it truly inconceivable to imagine rebuilding Newfoundland’s lost rail infrastructure?
Our culture asks us to accept that these projects are beyond our capacity, that they aren’t the proper way to manage an economy. But is it true?
What if we prioritized a culture of connection, one where people had the right to stay connected across distance?
We could do it by listening to people like the mother on the Ethie, the people who just want the modern equivalent of a ship big enough, safe enough, and affordable enough to carry them safely to family down the coast.