Theatre Review – Blyth Festival 2019/In the Wake of Wettlaufer by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt

Photo by Terry Manzo

Much of the Canadian bill of fare at the Blyth Festival is anchored in the interests and sensibilities of its mostly rural audience. Such plays can make the rounds of small town theatres and summer stock with great success. There are occasionally, however, Blyth originals that can go the distance and be performed in the big cities, where taste is supposedly more sophisticated. Such a vehicle is In the Wake of Wettlaufer by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt. In fact, I put it in the same league as Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land (1981) and Beverly Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott (2008), two towering hits with national legs that both debuted at Blyth.

In the annals of Canadian crime stories, the 2017 Elizabeth Wettlaufer case is notorious. Serial killer Wettlaufer, a registered nurse, murdered elderly residents of nursing homes where she worked, and which were very near Blyth, by injecting them with insulin. The subsequent public inquiry into the safety and security of long-term care facilities exposed a shocking array of weaknesses in the system. The report by Justice Eileen E. Gillese, commissioner of the inquiry, clearly pointed out that long-term care, which is such a necessary part of an ageing society, is broken.

What makes In the Wake of Wettlaufer a great play is the approach that the playwrights chose in dealing with the subject matter. They have not penned a true crime drama. Wettlaufer does not appear as a character. Rather, they concentrate on a dysfunctional family with a father (Robert King) who has dementia, and how his children deal with this problem that affects so many Canadian households. The key words are “in the wake”. While the first act details the tortuous dynamics between the children as they struggle with the crisis of their father’s declining health and ultimate death, the second act is about how they react to the news of Wettlaufer’s murder spree. Frank, their father, was a resident in a nursing home where Wettlaufer worked. Could he have been a victim?

McIntosh and Garratt, with the latter also directing, have created a fascinating and troubled group of siblings. Mary (Jane Spidell) is a childless lawyer who lives in Victoria, and has deliberately estranged herself from her family. Brenda (Caroline Gillis) is a nurse in the military based in Halifax, who is suffering from PTSD after tours to Afghanistan. The lone brother John (Nathan Howe) is an IT guy whose firm is in Kitchener, but who travels a great deal. This leaves Lynn (Rachel Jones), a single working mother with two children, who still lives in the small town where they grew up. It falls to her to be the front line in looking after their father. Unfortunately, Lynn has also become obsessive about the care of Frank, which puts her at odds with her sisters and brother.

Photo by Terry Manzo

By a careful interlocking of scenes and monologues, the playwrights slowly construct the relationships between the children themselves, and between them and their father. We learn about the past and the present by hearing their intimate revelations. In fact, we know much more about the family dynamics than they do. For example, Frank, who had been a Canadian peacekeeper, had tried to make the sensitive John into a man’s man, while, in reality, it was Brenda who was into sports and action and never got the attention. McIntosh and Garratt also integrate actual TV and radio reports into the play, as well as sound bite testimony from the public inquiry, and the voice of Justice Gillese herself. This dose of reality is a chilling example of life meeting art. As for the family, the bitter fight over whether they should put their father into a home, and then learning of the murders that took place in that very home, has a devastating impact on the siblings.

Director Garratt’s minimal set is very evocative. The stage contains what look like a series of carved wooden columns, giving the impression of a stately, old-fashioned courtroom, or a venerable law office. Chairs and tables are brought in by the cast as needed, but these oak pillars dominate the space, like a weight pressing in. Rebecca Picherack’s discreet lighting gives the stage a sombre patina, while Lyon Smith’s sound design perfectly integrates the real with the imagined.

Everything about this production is a class act. There is not a weak link in the cast, with the sisters being an intriguing study in contrasts – the pragmatic Mary, the needy Brenda, and the martyr Lynn. Spidell, Gillis and Jones render marvellous portraits of these complicated women. I would like particularly to single out Howe who is an extremely gifted actor with a brilliant career ahead of him. His intense portrait of John is raw emotion writ large, and Howe eats up the stage with his truth. The veteran King has the greatest arc, and he plays it beautifully, from a sharp-edge senior citizen to a broken husk of a man. Garratt has directed his cast with economy, concentrating on how the actors relate to each other. The tension is palpable, just as the characters are absolutely believable.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer has stirred up controversy, with one of the victim’s children even picketing the theatre. But as well as being a riveting drama in its own right, the larger questions that the play raises are very important ones. The microcosm of this one family’s trauma stands for the breakdown of the long-term care system as a whole. At the performance I attended, you could hear a pin drop. I’ve rarely heard an audience be so quiet, and I’m sure that every single person in the theatre was relating to what was happening on stage in some way or another. In the Wake of Wettlaufer is a disturbing story that, sadly, belongs to us all.

Blyth Festival, In the Wake of Wettlaufer by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt, directed by Gil Garratt, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Aug. 7 to Sept. 6, 2019.

Theatre Review – Blyth Festival/The Team on the Hill by Dan Needles

Photo by Terry Manzo

Anyone who has experienced Dan Needles’ Wingfield productions knows that the writer is a comic master. While his play The Team on the Hill contains some genuine laugh-out-loud lines, it tends towards the dramatic side of things, so Wingfield fans should be prepared for some darkness.

The play, which premiered in 2013, is perfect fare for Blyth’s largely rural audience. It is 1970, and three generations are in conflict over the family cattle farm. Austin Ransier, the grandfather (Layne Coleman), has made some bad decisions over the years, which required his son Ray (Tony Munch) to step in and save the farm. Things, however, are still precarious, and Ray does have regrets about giving up his job working on Great Lakes freighters in order to come back to the farm. Larry, the grandson (Kurtis Leon Baker), just out of agricultural college, has some modern ideas that he wants to try out like soybean production, but he is in constant conflict with Ray who is welded to his own way of thinking. Austin has been put reluctantly out to pasture by Ray and he pines for something to do, but it doesn’t help that he has dementia and has to be constantly watched. Ray’s much put-upon wife Marion (Julie Tamiko Manning) tries to keep the peace in the household while she works at a bank to bring in extra money. (The bank is also her escape hatch away from the family conflict.) Larry’s girlfriend Leanne (Lucy Meanwell) strikes up a warm relationship with Austin, which gives her a unique perspective about the farm’s history and importance to the Ransier family.

Both the Ransier farm and a neighbouring farm have been offered big bucks by a developer wanting to build a golf course. The title of the play comes from a vision that Austin keeps having, about seeing his farmer neighbour Albert, now departed, on a nearby hill with a team of matched Belgian horses. Will Albert’s widow accept the developer’s handsome offer and force the issue? What to do, what to do…

Photo by Terry Manzo

Needles knows how to write grumpy old man, and Coleman steals the show with the great lines he has been given. For example, Austin calls old men like himself “forgetters”. It is like a comic routine surrounded by a play. Manning gives a lovely performance as Marion, always a calm harbour in the eye of the storm. Baker is solid as the eager and emotional Larry. Alas, while Munch is always strong with character portrayal, he swallows his words, or rushes them, or something, and as a result, throws away his lines, particularly in the middle, but then, I’ve been complaining about Munch’s bad acting habit for years. As for Meanwell, she keeps the same pattern of speaking throughout without any modulations to her voice, which results in a pretty static performance. Luckily, she has little to say.

The director is Blyth’s associate artistic director Severn Thompson, whose father, Paul Thompson, headed the collective of actors who created the seminal docu-play The Farm Show in 1972. It seems fitting that she directs The Team on the Hill about a farm family in crisis. Needles, in his program notes, states that he’s very interested in succession, and the passing of land from one generation to the next with all the problems that that entails. Thompson has ensured that the conflict between grandfather, father and grandson is front and centre. The verbal fights are fierce, and Thompson and her actors go for the jugular, but then, Needles has given them great writing.

Kelly Wolf’s set is interesting. The farmhouse porch and kitchen are separated by a scrim, and this set piece revolves to bring one or the other to the front, while still keeping the other visible. The sides of this set piece are also in use as backdrops to the ancillary stages to the left and right. One is the barn, and the other is a bench near the river. As for the river and its waterfall, Wolf has crafted a dramatic blue/green sweep of ribbon that dominates the stage beside the farmhouse. We see it throughout the play, although its importance does not become apparent until the end.

The Team on the Hill is certainly entertaining, containing enough happiness and sadness to make it a satisfying theatrical experience.

Photo by Terry Manzo

Blyth Festival, The Team on the Hill by Dan Needles, directed by Severn Thompson, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jul. 31 to Sept. 5, 2019.

Theatre Review – Blyth Festival 2019/Jumbo by Sean Dixon

Photo by Terry Manzo

The kindest thing to say about the Blyth Festival’s world premiere of Jumbo is that the play is not ready for prime time. Yet it should have worked, given the talent behind the project such as accomplished writer Sean Dixon and talented director Gil Garratt. I suspect that a lot of time was spent on design issues, such as how to present a giant elephant on stage, at the expense of a cogent script.

There is a great Jumbo story somewhere, but Dixon hasn’t found it.  Jumbo, the African elephant, was the beloved star of PT Barnum’s circus, who was killed by an unscheduled freight train while crossing the tracks in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1885. What a great local hook to Blyth, right? Unfortunately, rather than tell a linear story about Jumbo, which is interesting in and of itself, Dixon has created a jumble (pardon the almost pun) of characters looking for a plot. Nothing seems to gel. Dixon’s primary focus seems to be the bearded lady, Annie Jones, (Lucy Meanwell), and her loving relationship with Jumbo. At the end, Annie wants Jumbo’s corpse treated with dignity. That’s as dramatic as things get. The rest of the circus crowd have assorted threads of stories that seem like red herrings, not to mention a barber, a butcher’s boy, and a taxidermist who weave in and out at random. As for PT himself (Layne Coleman), his role is absolutely undefined, while the character of Mathew Scott, Jumbo’s keeper (Tony Munch) contributes virtually nothing to the action.

Photo by Terry Manzo

Manon Beaudoin, who certainly has circus creds according to her bio, is listed as circus master, but the acts are lame. A cartwheel here, a tumbling act there; a snake charmer here, an aerialist there. Alas, there is absolutely no hint of excitement in any of these vignettes, which at least would have provided interest to the mushy story. Adding to this weak plot line are several other feeble features like the unbelievably slow pacing that director Garratt has allowed, and, to be perfectly frank, some not very good acting from several of the company.

If anything positive can be said about Jumbo, it is the colourful visual elements courtesy Eric Bunnell’s sets and costumes and composer Deanna H. Choi’s bouncy circus music. Jumbo is depicted as a giant puppet, created by Gemma James-Smith, which really is quite effective, as cast members maneuvre his face and trunk with sticks.

Now, if only there was a meaningful storyline and better acting.

Blyth Festival, Jumbo by Sean Dixon, directed by Gil Garratt, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jun. 12 to Aug. 10, 2019.

Theatre Review – Blyth Festival 2019/Cakewalk by Colleen Curran

Photo by Terry Manzo

Apparently, Cakewalk by Colleen Curran, which premiered at the Blyth Festival in 1984, and was remounted in 1986, has been one of the company’s most requested revivals. I actually saw both those shows and remember them fondly, so Curran’s zany comedy redux was welcome news. Happily, I can report that this 2019 production is right up to the mark.

Curran’s plot revolves around a small town baking competition, which is part of a wider Canada Day celebration. The grand prize is a trip to Paris for two, which is a very big deal indeed. The finalists, by alphabet, are waiting in the basement of the Balmoral Hotel, with Curran’s particular focus being the A-C room.

There we meet Leigh (Rachel Jones), named after Vivien Leigh, a nun who wants to win in order to send a fellow sister to Lourdes. She is in civilian dress and only her best friend Martha (Rebecca Auerbach) knows of her religious connection. Martha, too, is in the contest, hoping to bring attention to the new wave café she runs with her husband. Ruby (Catherine Fitch), scout den mother and wife of the town’s over-zealous tow truck owner, wants to win for a chance at a real honeymoon. Society matron Augusta (Caroline Gillis) wants the prestige of winning. She has entered the wedding cake meant for the next-day nuptials of her daughter Tiffany (Lucy Hill).  Finally, there is Taylor (Nathan Howe), a shy, clumsy, bachelor archaeologist who has entered the contest with future romance in mind. Actor Robert King plays the unseen announcer who is overseeing the Canada Day events.

Photo by Terry Manzo

As laugh generators, Curran has embedded a slew of complications into her plot. Leigh and Taylor fall in love, and they have to cope with her nunhood. Augusta has to keep hiding Tiffany’s cake from her enraged daughter, who wants the cake to be a surprise, and not on public display. Tiffany also has doubts concerning her impending marriage. Ruby is the villain who does everything she can to sabotage the other contestants, while Martha spends time running interference for everyone. All the while, the announcer keeps interrupting the flow with celebration trivia. Comings and goings occur in dizzying order, with verbal and physical play being the name of the game. In short, the two acts are sheer inane farce from beginning to end.

To pull off a farce, you need relentless pacing and committed performances. Farce only works if the actors play their roles as if their characters are facing life and death situations. The tension must be palpable, and kudos to director Kelli Fox for ensuring that it is. In other words, a strong woman director has brought out very strong performances in her actors. Everything about this revival is dynamic and clearly defined as Fox’s cast goes for the jugular. The action never flags and the laughs come a mile a minute. There is not a weak character or a weak moment on stage.

A talented all female creative team is behind the production, complimenting director Fox’s desire to keep the setting in 1984. Everything is retro. Laura Gardner’s set is a suitably functional, concrete room with a pay phone on the wall, but this drab setting allows the designer’s fanciful cake creations to shine out. Her period 1980s costumes are spot on as well. Louise Guinand has provided the garish lighting one would find in a hotel basement, while Verne Good’s sound design is a great compendium of 1980s music.

This production is all about perfectly chosen details by the director, her cast members, and her fellow creators. Cakewalk has been lovingly restored and remains thoroughly enjoyable.

Photo by Terry Manzo

Blyth Festival 2019, Cakewalk by Colleen Curran, directed by Kelli Fox, Blyth Memorial Hall,  Jun. 26 to Aug. 10, 2019.