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True story about marijuana grow-op yields an old-fashioned love story

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When Calgary playwright Ken Cameron got the call from his distraught parents that the tenant of the family farm house had used it as a marijuana grow-op, he felt conflicting reactions.

His first reaction was dismay, he says about being alerted that his beloved home near London, Ont., had gone to pot. "My second thought was that the story would make a great play."

Cameron chronicled his mom and dad's experience down to the smallest detail in Harvest, a comedy that has been produced over 16 times in theatres between Vancouver Island and Sackville, N.B., since its 2008 debut at the Blyth Festival in southern Ontario. Prairie Theatre Exchange will present it to close its 2013-14 season.

"Everything that is outlined in the play, except for two things, is exactly what happened," says the 44-year-old Cameron, reached in Calgary.

In 2004 his elderly parents sold off the surrounding land, but not the family home when they moved into a London retirement condo. They rented it to a pleasant young man who claimed to be a WestJet pilot. A couple of months later, they checked in on the place and discovered it abandoned with mould all over the walls, indicating that the residence had been converted into a marijuana grow operation. The house owners feared that if the building was a writeoff, their financial security would be ruined.

"My parents were pretty shocked and horrified. They didn't know what to do at first. They had great difficulty with the insurance. They felt pretty foolish about getting taken in. It put salt in their wounds," Cameron says.

Thrilled that he unearthed playwriting gold so close to home, Cameron began writing, but was soon surprised by what he harvested. The criminal activity faded into the background, while the way his parents dealt with their adversity took over the focus.

"In trying to capture the voice of my parents and the dynamics of their relationship, I came to realize I had written a love story," he says. "It was the story of a couple who had reached a point in their life when a crisis hits and in the crucible of that crisis, they find renewed love in their relationship."

The play turned out to be a way Cameron could pay homage to his parents.

"People show their best qualities in their darkest hours. When things are at their most difficult is when one's true colours shine," he says.

The PTE production features Winnipeg actors Megan McArton and Tom Anniko playing 12 characters. Cameron calls his play Wingfield's Farm meets Breaking Bad, referencing the popular Canadian country-comedy stage franchise and the great American TV crime drama about meth mogul Walter White.

"Breaking Bad is a very much, much, much darker story," he says. "There is something both criminal yet essentially harmless about marijuana in our collective national psyche, while there is something criminal, dangerous and unethical about crystal meth. That's the big difference."

Cameron is not all that well-known around these parts, despite having made his local debut at the 2006 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, performing his one-man drama My Morocco.

He has a new musical called Dear Johnny Deere -- based on the alt-country songs of Fred Eaglesmith -- which Theatre Calgary recently announced it will stage next season. Another of his better-known plays is My One and Only, which remembers big-screen siren Marilyn Monroe's visit to Banff in 1956 to shoot the movie The River of No Return.

Harvest is still Cameron's one work that offers the best yield of theatre cash.

"The play is a huge success because it's only got two actors onstage and it's cheap to do," says Cameron, who will be in Winnipeg next week to give a workshop for the Manitoba Association of Playwrights on how dramatists can land a second production of their plays. "The set is all boxes and farm stuff. It appeals to theatre audiences because it's about an older retired couple.

"In Canada, if a play is successful at one theatre, they become like sharks smelling blood. Canadian theatres descend on that play because they think they can succeed with it, too."

 

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 C3

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