It's 1969 and astronaut Neil Armstrong is about to make one giant leap for mankind on the moon while back on earth a young woman is unable to take one step towards a real life.
Pat is the well-meaning central character of the likable Ellen Peterson family drama The Brink, which is having its première at 40-year-old Prairie Theatre Exchange. The 27-year-old is as boxed in as the reams of paper and envelopes piled all over the dingy basement work/storage area of her uncle's printing business. Her late grandmother Lillian, who bought Chippawa Box and Paper, went over Niagara Falls in a barrell and her uncle Jim went overseas to war but Pat has never gone anywhere. She hasn't even been to Toronto two hours down the road.
The compelling heart of The Brink is the plight of three generations of women in this family. While most of the action takes place over a couple of months in the summer of '69, there are flashbacks to Lillian speaking to a gathering of the Daughters of Loyalty after she became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel in 1918 and to the Japanese POW camp in Tokyo where Jim, an Olympics-calibre pole vaulter, was barely surviving malnutrition and mistreatment.
The printing is on the wall for Chippawa Box and Paper as Xerox machines and automated competitors cut into its business. The company is overdrawn at the bank, triggering talk between Pat, her mother Shirley and Jim about closing up shop. The unfulfilled Shirley is anxious to get away and at last taste the good life in Florida for a final blowout. A sudden and unexpected huge order from the city of Niagara Falls looks like it could save the day. A U.S. draft dodger named Terry is taken in to help out.
Much of the two-hour PTE season-opener involves watching the four characters pushing paper from one box to the next. It's a dreary life for the dutiful Pat. The unlikable Shirley -- Jan Skene in top form -- is a cranky, unsatisfied pill. Jim (Steven Ratzlaff perfectly cast) is a doddering, good-hearted veteran prone to allowing typos like "Lord Goo Almighty" get printed in a church bulletin. The catalyst Terry (Evan Hall) opens Pat's eyes to breaking free from family and societal expectations.
Escape is an ever present state of mind for the characters of The Brink, directed by director Robert Metcalfe as if the play is an extended countdown. Each is, or has been, confined.
Lillian, played with commendable gravitas by Megan McArton, had her barrel, but even more restricting were the constraints of townspeople who didn't watch her go over the falls to celebrate her audacious feat but to see her fail for such ill-conceived daring. Her rousing Act 2 speech ends with, "The fact remains that it is a dangerous and unkind world, especially for a woman." It drew spontaneous applause, rare in mid-scene from audience members who think that's still the case.
Jim is still captive to the effects of his prison stay while Shirley never had the life she envisioned before becoming a secret single mother in a disapproving world. Terry is trapped in Canada and can't go home without being sent to fight in Vietnam or to the stockade for 20 years.
Robyn Slade impresses by communicating not only Pat's desperation to save the company but her vulnerability as an inexplicable loner who has never taken the plunge into the outside world. Water is a recurring theme in The Brink, with Pat frequently on a bridge over a local swimming hole unable to jump.
Despite its historic setting, Peterson's story is relatively small and simple, making the point that the times we live in steer our choices. The irony is that not everyone wants to be saved.
Peterson shows she belongs on a mainstage but her first full-length script could use a bit of work. Primarily, the scenes of Jim and his prison pal Guy in the POW camp don't fit very snugly with the rest of action and almost feel like they are part of another play, which it will be in the playwright's planned Chippawa Trilogy. It is also hard to believe that Pat can be so unaffected by growing up in the times-they-are-a-changin' '60s. She doesn't even have a record player to listen to Terry's gift of a Joni Mitchell album.
The Brink ends on July 21, 1969, the day Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Every baby boomer knows where they were that day. Pat remembers that date, too, for her less heralded, but personally more significant, giant leap.
Prairie Theatre Exchange
To Oct. 28
Three and a half stars out of five