Lac / Athabasca is inspired by the 2013 derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which resulted in fires and explosions that killed 47 people and destroyed part of the city’s downtown. The play follows a cast of characters spanning several time periods — a pair of nineteenth century fur traders pursued by an unseen monster, a pair of biologists in the present day investigating water pollution downstream from the oil sands, an oil sands worker who discovers a body, a train engineer who makes a fatal error and a group of townspeople who live with the consequences of a disaster.
Falkenstein’s play has a clear environmental message, showing how Canadians are complicit in the environmental damage from the oil sands, even if we don’t directly work with the oil, and also showing how the far reaching the effects of the damage can be. There are monsters both amorphous and real (a bear) in the story, and all serve to heighten the sense of unease that permeates throughout the play.
My favourite scene features the two biologists studying pollution on behalf of the oil sands company: Janice says the water meets the 50% minimum standard of cleanliness set by the Ministry, and when her colleague Peter argues that’s nowhere near good enough, and that there are three-eyed fish in the water, Janice responds that their jobs depend on them towing the party line, and then defiantly drinks the glass of cloudy water. It’s a heart-stopping moment that I can imagine playing very well onstage (I gasped out loud when I read it on the page), but it’s also a sad dose of reality, that data can so easily be manipulated to please whomever is paying for it.
Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.