Estonia exists because it's persisted in the face of occupation by foreign forces.
"I found that extraordinary," says Colleen Wagner, the Toronto-based and Governor-General Award-winning playwright. Her new play, Home, premieres at the Bus Stop Theatre on February 21.
It follows an elderly Estonian man on a journey he's fantasized about for a long time: heading back to Estonia from Canada, where he fled during the Second World War.
Home is set in 1995, four years after Estonia had reclaimed its independence. Eighty-year-old Toomas, diabetic but headstrong, travels with his son Wendall to reclaim his family's home. But they arrive to find three Russian women---Yanna, 79, Elina, 34, and her 15-year-old daughter Sonya---occupying the house, the only home they've known for many years.
Wagner first learned about Estonia during casual conversations with Estonian-Canadian friends. In 1999, Wagner went to Estonia, perched on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and bordered by Russia to the east and Latvia to the south. "It was still undergoing a huge transition," she says. Through museum visits and meetings with residents of Estonian and Russian identity, she "realized so much of home is memory and language and the identification of place with language."
This is reinforced in Home as the dialogue and confrontation between the two sides takes place within the weathered walls and on the worn floors of Toomas's old house. Confinement increases the tension.
Though written in English, the script reveals languages in contrapuntal arrangement, playing up confusion and conflict. The characters often deliver lines at the same time, a polyphony of Estonian, English and Low German, the language of Prussia.
Yanna (Mary Colin Chisolm), the elder-opposite to Toomas (David Hughes), lapses into Low German, which she spoke in her native Prussia. A region in northeast Germany, Prussia was swallowed whole by Russia. Yanna ended up in Estonia by way of forced relocation from Russia.
"Low German I wanted included because languages can be lost," explains Wagner, whose own background is part-Prussian. "There is a feeling that when it's gone, like Prussia itself, it's gone forever."
The linguistic dimension presented challenges and opportunities for the production, says director Mary Vingoe. "The fact that the two sides don't understand each other is hugely theatrical," she says, adding that this divide calibrated the performers' use of gesture, posture and tone of voice. It also allows them to bring out the script's humour.
Like Toomas, Yanna drifts back into memory of her homeland, triggered by pictures and clothing Toomas's family left behind and that Yanna kept when given the house by Soviet authorities. The symbolic roles of occupier and occupied appear to switch.
"This is what history shows us. The oppressor becomes the oppressed and the oppressed becomes the oppressor," says Vingoe. "We see it over and over again. You do wonder if we're ever going to be free of that."
While she's using a particular place and history, Wagner says she wasn't driven to draw "political conclusions." She simply wanted to show that home---no matter how fixed or concrete its symbols and practices---is always changing, shifting, receding into history. "Home is always in the past. It's a past tense."