4th Line Theatre, located on a farm near Millbrook ON, describes its playbill as “making our history come alive”, and, in fact, for 25 years, the company has been producing original plays whose stories are anchored in Peterborough County and environs. The Carmel of the title refers to the Carmel Line, Cavan Township, where the family farm belonging to Walter and Abigail White (Kevin Bundy and Kristina Nicoll) is situated. Carmel, the play, is about the trials and tribulations of the White family as they try to hold onto their land in the bleak year of 1937. As ever and always, Carmel is another engaging production that 4th Line seems to toss off with ease year after year.
Carmel is also the third of the theatre’s Doctor Barnardo play series, with the two lead male characters, Walter White and Billy Fiddler (Jonathan Shatzky), first introduced in Doctor Barnardo’s Children (2005). In this play, it is many years later, and while Walter is married with a family, the restless Jimmy has been riding the rails with his Black companion Thomas Fortune (Danny Waugh). The two pick up work wherever they can, trying to earn enough money to get them over to Spain, where they can fight against Franco’s fascists in the civil war. They help out at the White farm when Walter is injured.
A further subplot involves Abigail’s sister Audrey Barstow (Melissa Payne), a leader of the strike at the Bonner Worth Woollen Mill in Peterborough. She and Billy have a romantic liaison. The villain, and there always has to be one, is Millbrook banker Delbert Gray (JD Nicholsen) who fancies both Abigail and her teenage daughter Ruth (Asha Hall-Smith). The story is told from the perspective of Ruth who narrates with humour, wit and wonder. The cast is uniformly strong, particularly Hall-Smith, a high school student in real life, but a very accomplished actor for someone so young. As well, having a seasoned actor like Bundy gives real gravitas to the role of long-suffering Walter. Nicholsen’s smug portrayal of the lecherous Delbert is the perfect foil for Bundy to play against.
Playwrights Ian McLachan and Robert Winslow (the latter also directed) have jammed into this play struggling farmers, unscrupulous bankers, agitating unions, and leftist politics in general. Fact: to quell the Bonner Worth strike, the police used tear gas against workers for the first time in Canada, a dubious distinction if ever there was. On a personal level, the playwrights have given us severe depression, serious illness, child abuse, sexual harassment, disintegrating family dynamics, and overt racism against Thomas. Nonetheless, amid all these conflicts, is the bond of community. The Whites are not alone.
It should also be mentioned that there is a degree of sophistication in the writing that adds to the enjoyment, along with quite a few clever one-liners. For example, when someone gets new boots, another person remarks that they need shit on them. The playwrights also like to throw in surprises that go against the expected response. After the tear gas attack, Ruth, with great gusto tells us that the experience was exhilarating. As a whole, the dialogue is never gratuitous or melodramatic, and the characters speak with substance. Carmel, the play, is serious business. As one character points out, the fight against fascism is as important as the fight to save the farm.
4th Line plays always have music, and the original songs in Carmel are very clever indeed, courtesy composer Justin Hiscox who is celebrating his 21st year with the company. Playwright McLachlan has provided the provocative lyrics. The character of Billy Fiddler, who always has his guitar with him, supposedly wrote the songs, which are a commentary on the times, such as the amusing “Song of the Banker” and the haunting “Market day in Guernica”. The one extant song, “Solidarity Forever”, had the audience lustily singing along.
Meredith Hubbard, in her fourth season with 4th Line, has come up with the perfect 1930s period look in the costumes. The apt sets and props that adorn the two barns and fill the barnyard playing space are courtesy of Esther Vincent. As always, there is a huge cast of enthusiastic amateur players of all ages, not to mention a period truck, horses and chickens. Winslow founded 4th Line Theatre on the Winslow Farm. Hence, as a director, arranging people in, on and around the barns and in the adjacent fields is mother’s milk to him. Carmel certainly has a natural flow of scenes.
In summing up the Carmel experience, there really is something satisfying about a good story that goes in unexpected directions. No one can really predict the twists and turns of the plot.
4th Line Theatre, Carmel by Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow, directed by Robert Winslow, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, Aug. 6 to Aug. 31, 2019.