Now that was the week from Hell. And when your ‘week’ lasts 20 days, trust me, you know what you’re talking about. I was just near the end of that long stretch of drudgery (also, anyone wants to start paying me to do this blog business, you’re WAY overdue, I’m just saying) when at long last it was new playtime again! Just what a growing boy needs to keep his strength of will up. And speaking of will, my companion for the evening was none other than good guy and up’n’coming theatre gangster Will LaFrance (recently seen in Red.Collective’s DOG SEES GOD, soon to appear in GNAG’s production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL). We duded ourselves up but good, as well we should, because it was season premiere night at the National Arts Centre, English Theatre division. In fact, thanks to another show of theirs, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE opening up on the road in Calgary the same evening, it was actually a DOUBLE-Premiere for the NAC. Exciting stuff, kids, and we were ready for the challenge.
The show was Wendy Lill’s THE GLACE BAY MINERS’ MUSEUM, directed by Mary Vingoe (who directed the very first production of this script back in 1995 in Nova Scotia), a co-production with Neptune Theatre. Neptune has been doing what they do in Halifax for fifty years now, so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing by now. And adding to the fun of the evening was the first pre-show introduction of brand new NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Jillian Keiley, who seems a lovely and charming gal indeed…even IF she gave me no indication as to when I should unwrap my soothing lozenge. Bit of a disappointment there (Peter Hinton inside joke…never mind me).
The show, based on the Sheldon Currie novel and set in Nova Scotia, centers on the MacNeil clan, a family devastated by tragedy ofter losing a Father and brother in a mine disaster. Iron willed matriarch Catherine (Martha Irving) keeps the ramshackle MacNeil household under tight control in between regular bingo runs. Her Father, only ever called ‘Grandpa’ (David Francis) is ever-present and unmoving on his chair, speech gone and lungs failing from a life underground. Surviving son Ian (Jeff Schwager) is the only breadwinner, still struggling in the mines to start a union and improve wages. Which leaves Margaret (Francine Deschepper), the flighty, ill-fitting young girl who dreams of a better life, haunted b memories of her big brother Charlie Dave. Into all this wanders boisterous, rum-soaked Neil Currie (Gil Garrat), a war vet and bagpiping roustabout who has no intention of living his life by anyone else’s rules. He forces his way into Margaret’s, and by extension the whole family’s, life by sheer charm and braggadoccio. Slowly, his exuberance, and especially his passion for knowing your heritage, infects the downtrodden clan, and things start to look up (where else CAN you look in a mining town?). Until, of course, reality comes crashing down once again.
From the opening moments, just settling into my seat and taking in the gorgeous Sue LePage set (OMG I want to LIVE in that thing!!) I had a feeling this was gonna be a special evening and, as usual, I WAS RIGHT. Francine Deschepper brings out a foul-talking, dreamy-eyed Margaret, alternately shy and bellowing, and never dull. She shines on the stage, and is more than a match for Gill Garrat’s wonderful Neil, all sound and fury, and maybe not even sure himself of what it is he signifies. Jeff Schwager does a good angry young man bit as Ian, a cerebral loner living in his dead brother’s shadow. Martha Irving’s no-nonsense Catherine is especially grand to watch, and pretty hard to argue with sometimes (not that anyone ever passes up the opportunity). And David Francis gets some good scene stealing in, with little more than a thump or a gesture from his chair. The script is terrific, balancing romance, drama, family conflict, comedy and tragedy with a fairly effortless grace. And the lighting from Leigh Ann Vardy is pretty beautiful, to boot. Bonus points if you’re a bagpipe fan, or just a lover of East Coast music in general. This show’s sound is good for your soul, yo.
I’ll admit to being a teensy bit unsold on the whole ending of the piece…it just didn’t feel as organic as the rest of the play (and yes, I COULD be more pretentious sounding, don’t test me!), but that’s just my own personal cuppa tea. Overall, I was amazed and buoyed by the tale of Glace Bay, and would be happy to revisit it any old time. Thanks again to Will the France for hanging out with me for the evening…nice tie, dude. Let’s do it again sometime! And folks, go get your Glace Bay on while you can..it’s good for what ails ya. Peace, love and soul,
The Visitor (and Winston)