By Stephen Dafoe
Sturgeon County – The basement of the West Country Hearth in Villeneuve is sparse save for the steel pillars that support the ground level and a park bench that sits in the middle of the floor. The former are an integral part of what keeps the building aloft; the latter is a vehicle through which a series of stories on the human condition are driven forward week after week in music and song.
Since January, the cast of The Park Bench have been rehearsing in the basement of the Sturgeon County seniors’ facility in preparation for the musical’s second run at the Arden Theatre in St. Albert, a five-performance run set to take place June 15 to 17 in support of West Country Hearth.
The musical is the third for playwright Sandra Brenneis and is a little different than her previous works, Mary’s Veil and The Lost Apostle. The Park Bench chronicles the ups and downs of everyday life – the joys, troubles, blessings and difficulties that are familiar to all. These snippets of a life lived revolve around the titular set piece like the planets around the sun. Assembling those disparate stories into a cohesive unit was somewhat of a challenge for Brenneis.
“The Park Bench was an idea I had for a long time and the songs just sort of evolved over time as well,” Brenneis said. “It was actually one of the trickiest storylines because it was a bunch of different stories weaving together. The hard part was to find a common thread. I think overall I picked the theme of faith, hope and charity to bring it all together and to [show] the impact people have on one another.”
That impact is shown through song and dance as the themes of young love, scorn, the struggles and demands of family life, dealing with children growing up and family members growing old, and being strong in times of challenge are dealt with like leaves blowing gently through a park. But with each new number and added story, the central theme is but one.
“I think the real story is to be present in your life,” Brenneis said. “Recognize that there are moments of influence and power everywhere. If we just slow down long enough we can see them and we have the power to choose how we react and how we act toward things. It’ll make all the difference for ourselves and the people around us.”
Morinville’s Director of Planning and Development, Greg Hofmann, who plays rhythm guitar in the production’s orchestra, finds the production’s message to be an important one.
“To me, the premise to The Park Bench is quite simple,” Hofmann said. “It’s a profound story, but it’s simple. It’s just stories around a bench in a park, and it sort of has threads tracing someone’s life going through to the point of losing memory, and wondering what love is about when you don’t have memory.”
Hofmann refers to the song My Heart Will Know You, a moving piece both musically and in the statement it makes about those living with and dealing with Alzheimer’s. The song is sung by Joe, (played by Rene Soetaert) and speaks of how although his mind may one day no longer remember who his wife is, his heart will still know her.
For the guitarist and orchestra member, there has been a strong evolution in Brenneis’ musical composition through this song and the 22 others that lyrically tell the Story of The Park Bench. There has also been an evolvement of that music among the orchestra and cast since the inaugural performance in 2011.
“I believe this is the strongest work I’ve seen from Sandra,” Hofmann said, adding he has seen an impressive progression over her three musicals. “The orchestra is enjoying the music so much that we’re all adding to it, and this time it seems to be all feeding off itself. The musicians are listening to the singers; the singers are listening to the musicians, and it’s growing as a result of that.”
But the production is not the only thing growing. The facility where the cast has been rehearsing is growing as well.
Colleen Soetaert, who plays Kate in the production, is also the chair of the Sturgeon Aging in Place Foundation, the owner and operator of West Country Hearth. “These plays: Mary’s Veil, The Lost Apostle and The Park Bench have raised over $360,000 for Sturgeon Aging in Place Foundation,” Soetaert said, noting the facility has named two of their respite rooms after the previous productions. “We are adding on to our dementia unit. We will be adding 13 more suites. The Park Bench ties in quite nicely with that.”
Soetaert said proceeds from the upcoming performance, which could net as much as $40,000 if all shows sell out, will go towards the expansion to the dementia unit. “That would be really significant, so we are hoping to sell out,” she said.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. June 15, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. June 16, and 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. June 17. Tickets for the The Park Bench are $20 and are available at the Arden Theatre in St. Albert (780-459-1542), through Ticketmaster, or by calling Simonne at 780-458-0908.