Theater Review: Have we lost our French heritage?
By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer | March 30,2013
Jim Lowe / Staff photo
Abby Paige attempts to make her mother’s tourtiere in “Piecework: When We Were French.”
MONTPELIER — There was a time, not so long ago, that the French language was heard regularly around central Vermont. Abby Paige celebrates that heritage in her entertaining and revealing one-woman show, “Piecework: When We Were French,” part of Lost Nation Theater’s Winterfest 2013.
Opening and closing the show as the housekeeper at the rectory of St. Joseph’s felt just so authentic for those of us who grew up in Montpelier when it was half Catholic (French and Irish, with a smattering of Italian and Spanish). Paige’s banter as the veteran housekeeper aroused so many memories of the area’s ethnic-laden past — most authentically.
Created in 2009 for Burlington’s Lake Champlain 400 festival and first presented by Lost Nation, this 70-minute series of vignettes celebrates Vermont’s deep French heritage with both sadness and humor. Thursday’s performance at City Hall Arts Center, though not hugely different from 2010, proved more cohesive and compelling.
In short the show is celebratory, entertaining and deeply touching.
Paige, a veteran actress, uses her own life as a jumping-off point. Burlington-bred in a French-Canadian family she had virtually lost touch with her French heritage, unable to speak the language save for some high school efforts. She decided to do something about it — this show.
The vignettes range from the aforementioned housekeeper to a teen girl to a schoolteacher to a woman valiantly attempting to make her mother’s tourtiere, a delicious French-Canadian meat pie. Interspersed, adding authenticity, were bits of recordings from Paige’s many interviews with French-Canadians.
The teen girl proved most entertaining as well as illuminating as she explained her feelings about her somewhat illusive French heritage. Her priceless descriptions of family trips to Quebec painted a beautiful and authentic picture of the joys of rural French-Canadian life. And it was funny.
Not so funny was the discrimination the French settlers found when moving to Vermont for the innocent reason of supporting their families. This was effectively related by a schoolteacher who also showed how the French arrived earlier than the English — and were not truly colonizers.
All this sounds as if this one-woman show was academic, but it was anything but. It was an affectionate portrait of a now-dying culture that was once a huge part of Vermont life. And it was also terribly funny.
One particularly telling moment was when it was pointed out that American French teachers looking down on Canadian French was telling an entire country that it spoke its own language wrong.