Calgary Fringe – Dying Hard – Review

Dying Hard

Venue 1008

August 2, 4 and 5

After seeing Dying Hard, I was looking through my notes in preparation to write my review when I realized that I hadn’t really taken any. This is was not because I didn’t have a strong reaction to the play or many things to say about it. Truth is I was so fully engrossed in the performance I had a hard time looking away long enough to jot down my thoughts. Dying Hard is not only a must see for the Calgary Fringe Festival, it is a performance that could hold its own on any professional stage and compete with  bigger and more lavish productions in terms of emotional engagement and impact.

The play examines the plight of the fluorspar miners in 1960’s Newfoundland as they deal with the ravages of industrial disease brought on by years of working in the mines. Delivered as a one-woman performance, Mikaela Dyke opens the play by appearing on stage as herself explaining to the audience that what we are about to see are 6 verbatim archived interviews of the women and men whose lives and bodies suffered because of the mines.

What happens next is both jarring and wonderful. With no more than the putting on of glasses and sitting in a chair, Mikaela begins the first interview monologue belonging to an old man with a Newfoundland accent as thick as tar. The transformation is so quick and so realistic that it takes a few minutes to reconcile the Mikaela we just saw to the actor now performing for us. And as usual with accents, it also takes the ear a minute or so to acclimate to what is being said. But once the shock wears off, the joy sets in. This is not simply an impression. Mikaela Dyke actually becomes the older man with the wheezes and the verbal tics and the particular patter that he would have had. And all this is done from a chair without any other movement to help her characterization. The man talks about his experience in the mines and the friends and colleagues he’s lost to mining-induced diseases, all with the stoicism of a man who isn’t afraid of hard work or hard times. But the pathos of the damage done and the price paid is powerful.

At the end of his story, Mikaela pauses, returns as herself and introduces the second interview. Jarring again to be sure and perhaps even more so because after watching her do the first character I couldn’t fathom that she could outperform herself. Boy was I wrong. With the donning of a new shirt and standing up this time, Mikaela transforms into a younger glass-half-full miner who, despite being diagnosed with a lump “this big” on his lung, still finds ways to laugh and joke about times underground. From him we hear about the “compensation” from the government and the strike the miners went on to try and get the company to look after their heath. In direct proportion to this character’s way of laughing things off, the audience feels the burn of how unjust the health conditions were for the miners.

There are several more transformations and knock-out performances including the wife of a miner dying of silicosis, a disease when mining dust damages the lungs to the point of suffocation, a man who not only has lung issues but was crippled by a fall in the mine, an ex-miner who spent 17 years underground and says that “he wouldn’t have spent 17 seconds if he knew what was down there” and finally the widow of a miner. Each character under Mikaela’s care is poignant and heartbreaking and breathtakingly well-acted. I always like to say that the best acting is when you don’t see the acting at all and in none of the characters did I feel I was watching a performance. Instead it felt as though the stories of these poor souls were being channeled on stage for us and Mikaela just happened to be the vessel.

My only concern with the production was the lack of context given. While Mikaela does describe the play’s setting at the start, she does it so quickly that she doesn’t adequately prep the audience to experience the full breadth of the character’s stories. For example, I would have liked to know what fluorspar was (it’s a non-metallic ore is used in things like aluminum, glass and Freon) and what silicosis was (as explained above) and that the “gas” in the mines that caused cancer was radon and that “compensation” was worker’s compensation given to those who grew ill because of the mines. The last one became obvious as the play went on, but at first I was confused and wondered if “compensation” meant welfare.

However none of this took away from my enjoyment of the play as it was happening and my confusion and/or curiosity was easily sated by a quick Google search of the history and issues. I do recommend that you read about it either before or after the play as I believe it will enhance your enjoyment of the performance. Here’s the link I found useful – it’s a quick read, but you’ll get the info you need.

Dying Hard isn’t an easy play to watch, but once you start to look, you will not want to look away.


For the guys – a woman who does a better characterization of hard-working, salt of the earth men then you yourself could ever do. SEE IT

For the girls – regardless how foreign the men may seem to you, you’ll become attached to every character and the women will break your heart. Bring Kleenex for the widow scene. SEE IT

For the occasional audience – The accent will give you trouble for a while. Bear with it and see one of the best performances around. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – For all the reasons above and because you will appreciate how brilliantly simple the staging and directing is. SEE IT

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