Theatre Review: The Dunsmuirs is a well-acted immigrant rags-to-riches story with a healthy dose of Scots-Canadian culture

Theatre Review:  The Dunsmuirs is a well-acted immigrant rags-to-riches story with a healthy dose of Scots-Canadian culture

The Dunsmuirs: Alone at the Edge
Oct 5-20, 2007
Presentation House Theatre
333 Chesterfield Ave.
North Vancouver

photo of Duncan Fraser by Sandra Lockwood

This is a wonderfully
interesting play about one of Canada's most controversial and
rags-to-richest Scots-Canadian Robert Dunsmuir.  The coal miner who
became a coal baron then Premier and Lt. Governor of the province while
he was employing Asian minors as lower paid scab labourers in his
Nanaimo/Cumberland mines.

Written by Rod Langley and directed by Bill Devine.  Duncan Fraser stars as the ambitious Robert Dunsmuir who excels at the Scots work ethic to the point of distressing his long suffering wife Joan Dunsmuir played by Lee Van
Paassen. Both Fraser and Van Paassen present strong acting as their characters must go through tremendous trials in both family and business. 

The story is centered on the family's life in the 1860's when both Dunsmuir and his son James, played by Mike Wasco, both work in the mine pits.  His other son Alex (played by Daniel Arnold) works in the office, where he has plenty of time to develop his dependency for alcohol.  Cat Main plays Susan, the town school teacher who becomes the girlfriend of James.

One night, Joan and her sons plot an attempt to halt Dunsmuir's obsession with working in the mines, when he suddenly walks in with a large discovery of a new coal vein which changes their lives forever.  The play is dark with ambition, greed and jealousy as well as insercurity.  It is revealed that the Dunsmuirs have never been liked or accepted by the community.  But this changes as the family fortunes rise.

The second act finds the Dunsmuirs as an accepted family in society.  Robert is to be a special guest at the annual community Robert Burns Dinner.  Fraser walks up to the audience and delivers his speech to the audience, as if they were attendees to the dinner.  While there is canned clapping heard through the sound system, the audience began clapping spontaneously along in all the right moments adding to a lively interaction between actor and audience.

“It was a good audience tonight,” actor Duncan Fraser later told me after the show.

Set designers Gary and Lynda Chu do a wonderful job for such a small theatre.  The main stage is a realistic yet sparse cabin home of the Dunsmuirs.  For scenes such as going to the office of Commander Diggle (played admirably by William Samples), or the Burns Dinner, the main stage lights are turned down and the actors come to the side or the front of the stage.  It is effective and simple, and puts all the attention on the skills of the actors.

The Dunsmuirs gives a
very interesting look at an important part of BC and Canadian history. 
While it stops short of Robert Dunsmuir's rise to become BC's first
millionaire, his turns as BC Premier and Lt. Governor, and before he employed Asian miners as scab labourers – the play also
reveals his ruthless business acumen, that broke strikes and made him
the scourage of labour in BC. 

Click here to see an interview with cast members.

Check out other reviews on The Dunsmuirs:

The Dunsmuirs: alone at the edge
Georgia Straight, Canada – 11 Oct 2007
As Dunsmuir, Duncan Fraser is a notable exception. His performance is as subtle and monumental as the script aspires to be.
The bitter making of a coal baron
Vancouver Sun,  Canada – 10 Oct 2007
Duncan Fraser plays Robert Dunsmuir, impoverished patriarch, and Fraser's wife Lee Van Paassen portrays Robert's missus Joan. While the Dunsmuirs' son James
Ruthless coal baron lived a dark life
Vancouver Sun,  Canada – 4 Oct 2007
A new Sea Theatre production opening this weekend features Duncan Fraser and Lee van Paassen as the Dunsmuirs, and this isn't the first time these actors

Todd's adventures at “The Dunsmuirs” – wearing a kilt and meeting the actors.

It was interesting to go see a play about Robert Dunsmuir, one of BC's leading historical strike breakers ,picket line crossers, and employer of scab labour – while my own Vancouver Library workers union was on the 82nd strike day of the first strike in it's 77 year history of the CUPE 391 union.  But then it is always more interesting when I decide to wear a kilt to a Scots theme-related event.

At intermission, my friend and I each enjoyed a bottle of Alexander Keith's. I was wearing the
Fraser Hunting tartan wool kilt – because in a photo of the play, I
noticed that the actor playing Robert Dunsmuir, Duncan Fraser, was
wearing the same cloth.  Needless to say, several people stared, and
commented to themselves about the “Chinese guy wearing a kilt.”  One
fellow came up to me as we walked back into the theatre, saying he saw
me in a theatre show. 

“Not me,” I replied… “but maybe you saw me on television.  On the CBC documentary Generations: The Chan Legacy?”

The show was good, as it dramatically showed the challenging family
dynamics of the Dunsmuir family, in their quest to develop and maintain
the coal mine.  Rising from a dirt poor mining family, you learn about
Mrs. Dunsmuir's fall from grace with her family in Scotland, and how
she was the spunk that pushed Robert Dunsmuir to succeed in his dreams.

After the show, the actor that played Dunsmuir's son James walked by. 
I asked him if William Samples was still there.  He said yes (Samples
leaves at PAL “Performing Arts Lodge” where Deb works).  I asked him to
say that “Deb Martin says hi” and to tell actor Duncan Fraser… that I
was wearing the hunting Fraser tartan.

The actors came out, and we made introductions.  Fraser looked at my
kilt and said a line from the play, “We are clan!”  We had a good chat
about Gung Haggis Fat Choy, Robbie Burns, Robert Dunsmuir. 

I showed my card to Samples and Fraser, and they hooted at the picture of me wearing a kilt with the Chinese Lion mask.

“If you ever need somebody to give the Address to the Haggis, I'd be delighted.” he offered.

I shared that my great-great-grandfather Rev. Chan Yu Tan used to minister to the Chinese miners in Nanaimo and Cumberland.

“You can't say the name Dunsmuir, in Nanaimo.  The man is that reviled there,” said Fraser.


Actors William Samples and Duncan Fraser force Todd Wong to prove he
has enough hot air to fill Fraser's bagpipes- photo Dave Samis

We took some pictures with William Samples and Duncan Fraser on the set.  Duncan went to get his bagpipes, and put them in my hands telling me to blow into them.  Samples kept telling me jokes in an effort to get me to laugh and lose my breath while blowing.

I promised to try to get an invitation for Duncan Fraser to the dinner
for the visiting Scottish parliamentary ministers coming up in
November, as Harry McGrath has been asking me – a 5th generation
Chinese-Canadian, for worthy examples of Scottish-Canadian citizenry to
invite as guests.

See Todd's photos from his August 2007 visit to Craigdarroch Castle:

Scottish Victoria + Craigdarroch Castle…



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