Eldorado Town: a play about a small town with big issues

Scott Maudsley (left) plays Dr. Marcel Pochon, with Tim Walker as Cam McGinnis, in Eldorado Town.

Some people will tell you that a certain topic is “radioactive,” meaning it’s dangerous and you shouldn’t go near it. Thankfully, for local theatre goers, director Robert Winslow didn’t listen to such advice when faced with the actual topic of radioactivity for a new play about the history of Port Hope.

“I like challenges,” says Winslow, Founding Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook. “I like taking on something when people say, ‘You shouldn’t even touch that with a 10-foot pole.’”

Eldorado Town – The Port Hope Play tells the story of refining radioactive material in the town, from the viewpoint of the townspeople as well as the Eldorado Gold Mines owners, and employees, including an idealistic chemist named Marcel Pochon.

“I’ve always been drawn to projects that illuminate the past and bring forward lessons for the future,” notes Winslow. “Eldorado Town is about community, family and how we pull together through both difficult and happy times.”

Winslow says that he always wanted to do a play about Port Hope’s history, but it wasn’t until one of the theatre company’s new play competitions attracted an application from Charles Hayter that everything fell into place. That was in 2006. A testament to 4th Line’s commitment to develop new plays, the theatre company is presenting the world premier of Eldorado Town to the people to whom it matters most.

Few in Canada are more concerned with the topic of low-level radioactivity than the people of Port Hope, and its neighbouring communities, as the town is home to the largest volume of historic low-level radioactive waste in the country. The Eldorado company is now called Cameco, and produces uranium fuel for nuclear power plants. The town is still dealing with the clean-up and storage of contaminated waste material.

Winslow recalls that when he first came across Hayter’s script proposal, he knew it was the perfect subject for his theatre company, which strives to present regionally-based, historical dramas, “Charles is somebody who has experience as a playwright, and also as an oncologist; he knows about the medical profession and the medical uses of radium. It was perfect.”

Indeed, few are more qualified, both artistically and scientifically, than Hayter to tackle the weighty subject matter that still divides some in the town to this day. A specialist in radiation oncology who practices part-time at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Hayter completed a Masters degree in theatre before going on to complete his medical degree.

He has practiced medicine for over 25 years, and has published extensively on the subject of medical history. In 2001, he was given the John B. Neilson Award for his significant ongoing contributions to the history of health care in Canada. Hayter says it was while researching his 2005 book, An Element of Hope about the history of radium therapy in Canada that he first learned the history of Port Hope.

“I was studying the history of radium and radium treatment in Canada, and I discovered that this plant, the Eldorado plant, had been established in the 1930s in Port Hope to produce radium. And the amazing thing about it was, at that time, it was only the second plant in the whole world,” notes Hayter.

After writing a factual, non-fiction book, the process of creating a fictional piece of storytelling appealed to Hayter. And given his background as a doctor, it was natural that he sought to not only learn from history, but to use that history to help heal the community.

“The whole intriguing thing about radium and radiation, what the whole play is about, is the two sides of radiation. It has this healing side, this beneficial side, but it also has this very destructive side,” says Hayter, who as an oncologist, can confirm that radium was used until the 1970s to cure cancer, while radiation, particularly low doses of radiation, can cause cancer.

As a playwright, he chose to focus on the 1930s and ‘40s period in Port Hope. The play starts in 1930, when the Labine brothers discover the pitchblend ore from which radium is mined, and pick Port Hope as the location to process it. It continues through World War II and the discovery of a use for the by-product of radium refining, uranium, to create the atomic bomb. The play ends in 1946, when Eldorado becomes a crown corporation.

Hayter incorporates real historical people into the play, including the Labine brothers, Dr. Pochon, and Canada’s wartime Minister of Munitions, C.D. Howe. Pochon worked in the laboratories of Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie in Paris, and came to Port Hope to oversee the radium processing plant.

Having similar scientific interests, one might expect that Hayter would be sympathetic to Dr. Pochon. But instead, he uses the character of the doctor as a warning about the pitfalls of embracing new discoveries without a critical eye.

“Pochon is like a lot of scientists and doctors at the beginning of the 20th Century. He is blinded to the negative side of radiation. That’s what happens with any new medical technology or drug, people get blinded by its positive effects, and they don’t pay any attention to the harm or the side effects,” cautions Hayter.

“Towards the end of the play, Pochon talks about the fact that he feels almost as though he’s been drunk, intoxicated with this idea that radiation is going to make the world a better place, and all of a sudden with the dropping of the bomb, he sobers up.”

As if radioactivity wasn’t enough, Port Hope also played a role in the Manhattan Project, which ultimately developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II.

“The news that they had been helping to work on the bomb, at that time it was mostly a positive thing because it helped end the war,” notes Hayter. “Although it killed many people, it saved Canadian soldiers; it saved all kinds of people. Port Hope felt pride about its contribution towards ending the war.”

Hayter says that he hopes the play entertains as well as enlightens the audience. “In terms of historical enlightenment, I think there is a level of ignorance about the history behind the current situation in Port Hope. So I hope one thing the play will do is make people understand the history better, that it’s not just black and white.”

In terms of emotional enlightenment, Hayter has already seen the play have a healing effect.

“I did a reading from the play at Furby House books in Port Hope at the end of May,” recalls the playwright. “I just read some of the scenes. But afterwards, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I hope you know that all of the leaders of the different factions in Port Hope, for and against, were all here tonight.’ She said that when she arrived at the reading, she thought that it was going to erupt into a fight. So, she said, she watched people’s faces, and as they were listening to the story, they were kind of drawn into it, and there was no fighting at the end. They were drawn into it, they were interested and curious.”

“I hope the play can help people,” stresses Hayter. “I hope it can help the community heal, because as an outsider, I’ve been very aware of how sensitive and how tense people are around this issue.”

“I tried to do my best to be balanced about it. I depicted a period when radiation and science were going in the public’s eye from being a very positive thing to being something that people were a lot more suspicious about, which is an era we are in now,” he adds.

But Eldorado Town is more than just a cautionary tale. “A play has to entertain as well as move people,” he says. As the director, Winslow agrees, sayings he has tried to balance the way scientific and historic information is presented, keeping the audience engaged with songs and dance, and visual interest.

While a certain amount of scientific information is necessary in the play, it is “balanced off by the personal stories,” notes Winslow. “Like the story of Cam McGinnis, the worker who gets sick in the play, his relationship with the scientist Pochon, and the relationship between Cam and his wife.”

The fictional character of Cam is used to illustrate the ill effects of radiation on an individual and his family. Cam develops lymphoma. In real life, as an oncologist, Hayter knows how the illness manifests itself, and thought it was important to include that in the play.

“It’s very personal,” says Winslow. “It’s a human story as well as an historical one. We’re very respectful and sensitive to what the community has gone through, with issues like radioactivity, and worries about health issues. But it is a history that you don’t want to forget.”

The gala opening of the play is Thursday, July 1st at 6 pm. Performances run to July 24th, Tuesday to Saturday, with an added performance Monday, July 19. Tickets are available from the theatre’s box office by calling 1-800-814-0055, via email at boxoffice@4thlinetheatre.on.ca or online at www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.

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