Staging a true crime – reviewing The Ballad of Peachtree Rose
NOTE: I decided to break this review into two parts: the first gives a spoiler-free overview of the show and the second discusses some very specific aspects of the story. If you haven’t seen the show and/or do not want it to get spoiled, stop reading when you hit the warning below.
Nicole Moeller’s new work, The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, is a fascinating window into the world of organized crime set right here in Edmonton. The show centers on a street kid, the curiously-named Peachtree (Alexandra Dawkins), who ends up involved in an enigmatic organized crime ring led by Max (Laura Raboud).
Dawkins plays Peachtree with a superb blend of nuance and candor. She’s bristly and coarse, lashing out in quick anger as an obvious defense mechanism, then shifts just as quickly and reveals her incredible vulnerability. It’s impossible not to feel for this young woman, utterly alone and lost in the world with her heart on her sleeve – or rather, carved into her chest. Peachtree’s actions are motivated by money, but she’s far more desperate for companionship and connection.
Much of the show focuses on the relationship between Peach and Max, which is a complex and fraught dynamic that is at terms supportive and manipulative. It shifts in tenor from employee-employer, friends, sisters, mother-daughter; from one scene to another you’re not quite sure which way it will go, or which one it actually is. This is a key aspect of Peachtree: nothing is as it seems and your assumptions will be constantly unseated.
Rounding out the Peach-Max duo is Sylvie, a ponytailed ne’er-do-well played by Shannon Blanchet. Blanchet shows off her adaptability in a collection of smaller supporting roles, with a few simple but effective costume and styling changes and instantaneous shifts in her demeanor to show who’s who. As Sylvie she’s a bit hammy, almost a caricature henchman – the reasons for which become clear as the show unfolds.
Moeller’s script is clever. It’s a slow-burn thriller, which takes its time exploring the characters and endearing the audience to Peachtree. In the latter half of the show it picks up the pace and throws a series of pivots and plot twists at the audience, some of which are downright blindsiding. There’s a sense, early on, of uneasiness; something isn’t quite right. But I don’t think most of us figured out what was happening until it was made clear on stage. Even then, reflecting back on the show, you may realize that your initial understanding is only one interpretation and there could be alternative explanations for what transpired that are just as valid.
This holds true even for the identity of one of the characters: the trio of Peach, Max and Sylvie are joined onstage by a narrator/observer that the program names Belle (Bobbi Goddard). Belle’s identity seems clear at first, but then the story twists and unseats your assumptions, leaving you unsure who she really is. (To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure.)
This ambiguity is certainly intentional, and a testament to the strength of Moeller’s writing. At times during the show I was reminded of one of Moeller’s previous works, An Almost Perfect Thing, which was a similar exploration of the humans and humanity behind terrible acts of violence, and which also made good use of multiple narratives – including scenes where these narratives happen concurrently on stage, demanding the audience’s full engagement and presence.
With such an involved plot, the set design (by Daniela Masellis) strives for simplicity: a few wheeled shelving units of cardboard boxes and assorted other simple set pieces, which are deftly rolled into place by the actors between scene changes. If there’s a fault of the production, it’s that there are a few too many of these scene changes. The script demands them and they were handled adeptly, but they started to add up by the end and the disruption took away some of the impact and momentum that had been building.
This is an all-women cast and crew, a rare thing and even more so given the subject matter. Crime, especially organized crime, is so often male territory; placing women in these roles was something that Moeller chose very deliberately. As she explains in a note in the program: “The majority of women who inflict violence are also victims of violence. This creates a complexity and monstrousness that I believe needs to be heard.”
True crime is hot in pop culture right now, with hundreds of podcasts devoted to the genre and a big uptick in true crime TV shows, books and online articles. Far less of these stories are seen on theatre stages, especially ones that are set right here in Edmonton and based on our own homegrown crime cases. That alone makes The Ballad of Peachtree Rose a remarkable entry into our city’s local theatre canon. It’s also deftly written and convincingly delivered.
Moeller spent five years doing research for this script, which included dozens of meetings with lawyers, families of victims, police, and individuals who have been through the court system, as well as sitting through criminal trials. Peachtree is the culmination of this work. It is a remarkable, nuanced and rich tribute to all of these people, and an incisive mirror held up to our justice system.
***SEE BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY THAT INCLUDES SPOILERS***
On the night I happened to see The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, there was an unadvertised salon afterwards. Workshop West is doing three salons on various topics throughout the run (November 5, 7 and 10), but this one was a secret and when we were told about it, right before the play began, the identity of the speaker was kept secret as it would be a spoiler. So my curiosity was definitely piqued before the show even started.
The speaker turned out to be Jason Dix, who was arrested and charged with the double murder of James Deiter and Tim Orydzuk in October 1994. Dix spent two years in prison before the charges were dismissed after a bungled, elaborate, year-long Mr. Big operation conducted by the RCMP in an attempt to get Dix to confess to the crimes. In 2002, Dix won a lawsuit against the RCMP and Crown lawyers for malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and breach of rights.
Playwright Nicole Moeller joined Dix for the salon, which was moderated by Vern Thiessen, Workshop West’s artistic director (outgoing).
Prior to the talk, I was only vaguely aware of Mr. Big operations, where undercover police officers impersonate criminals in an attempt to coax a confession out of a suspect. Often they take place in the jailhouse after the suspect has already been arrested; sometimes they are conducted on the outside. The one that the RCMP conducted on Dix was a hugely expensive, year-long operation that was incredibly coercive and problematic, after an investigation that was flawed from the start.
Once we heard Dix’s story, it was obvious that Moeller based a lot of Peachtree on his ordeal. This certainly altered my initial interpretation of her script – I thought that Peach was guilty until I heard Dix talk, and then I questioned that assumption. At one point, Thiessen asked the audience about this and the crowd was pretty split – many thought Peach was innocent, only a few thought she was guilty, and a number of us didn’t know what to think (including some of the actors).
I was shocked to learn about the details of Dix’s case, and even more by the fact that Mr. Big operations are fairly common in Canada (and, increasingly, Australia too – the Aussies borrowed the idea from us). The landscape has changed slightly since Dix’s case: a 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling made evidence gathered during a Mr. Big sting presumptively inadmissible; the Crown has to establish that the confessions are more reliable than they are prejudicial to the accused. This seems a prudent step to safeguard our “innocent until proven guilty” ethos – Mr. Big operations are incredibly insidious and coercive. They are rarely used in the US because evidence obtained this way would probably be considered entrapment and therefore inadmissible. And once you’ve heard someone like Dix speak – an innocent person who lost two years of his life in jail because of this practice – you’re much more inclined to think Mr. Big operations are barbaric.
But they continue to occur, and this type of evidence still makes it into court. Often they seem to confirm that the accused are clearly guilty, such as the 2017 trial of Joshua Frank and Jason Klaus, which allowed Mr. Big evidence. Is that worth continuing to allow this practice, despite knowing that at least one person was falsely incarcerated because of it?
To hear more about this show, listen to this episode of the Ghost Light podcast.
The Ballad of Peachtree Rose
By Nicole Moeller
Workshop West, until Sunday, November 10
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