It’s the thing at the back of Tracey Erin Smith’s throat that’s going to kill her, warns her healer. Those stuck half-sentences: what she can’t say. THE BIG HOUSE, presented at the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival, asks the question, “When you’re a little kid and your Dad goes to jail, does a part of you go with?” Fringe darling Smith has created smash hits from The Burning Bush to The Clergy Project with her story-based Soulo Theatre, which deals in well-crafted, heartfelt confessionals and autofiction. In 2012, Smith covered the effects of her father’s suicide in Snug Harbor. It’s something even older, though, that forms the source of the blockage: her father’s imprisonment in 1977 for fraud, when Smith was a young child.
In her beautiful, uplifting show, Smith, with director and co-creator Sarah Garton Stanley, weaves together two attempts she made to finally deal with this memory: a family Passover Seder in her tiny apartment, where she tries to, in the words of the Four Questions, make “this night different from all other nights” by seeking answers, and her visit to a maximum-security prison in California as a volunteer as part of an entrepreneurship training program for inmates.
Smith quickly draws the audience into her confidence, speaking conspiratorially and commanding the stage with ease. On one side of the spare set (Steve Lucas), a high prison window looms just out of reach; on the other, a dollhouse-sized representation of the house and life she lost as a child. Sacred ritual props, such as a Passover Haggadah, sit in the centre. She’s accompanied by a pulsating soundtrack (Christopher Stanton) that blends hip-hop and Hebrew numbers, which she occasionally accompanies with a strong, clear voice.
The strangely sympatico soundtrack is only one example of how Smith excels at creating this sort of thematically-relevant mashup, linking concepts with double meanings. The Big House of the title represents both aspiration and shame: Smith’s family lived in a “big house” until his arrest, after which he moved to the other Big House, and they moved to smaller digs. She also creates a diptych of living a life in solitary in prison, and a solitary life on the outside, as she ruminates about being on the cusp of 50 and living alone.
Smith insinuates that she’s been neglecting dealing with this vital but very difficult background part of herself, and commensurately her liveliness is still at its peak when telling her story in the context of the trials of others in the prison, rather than when she’s telling her story within the family, where the quick conversations can leave one slightly confused as to who’s who despite her best efforts. Her description of her experiences with the prisoners is gently humourous and deeply compassionate, and she’s careful to highlight the similarities between inmate and volunteer, rather than othering the former. The revelation of just how long a prisoner can actually spend in solitary, despite what seems a clear human rights violation, led to gasps. Just when you think she’s pulled out all the stops, a sudden surprise (no spoilers) adds another level to the magic.
THE BIG HOUSE makes it clear that one’s story is an ongoing work in progress; the key is growth and change, reinvention and redemption. Smith says that she sees what a person can do “when a heart starts to feel safe again.” With this show’s big, healing heart, I foresee that she’s going to have some of the biggest houses of the Fringe.
- THE BIG HOUSE plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace. (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warning: mature language.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Thursday July 4th, 8:00 pm
- Saturday July 6th, 10:00 pm
- Monday July 8th, 9:15 pm
- Wednesday July 10th, 4:00 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 6:30 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 2:15 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 7:30 pm
Photo of Tracey Erin Smith provided by the artist