Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: (Ottawa / Theatre) Oil and Water

Alison Woolridge, Ryan Allen, Mike Payette (photo by Peter Bromley)
Warmth on a Cold Rock
by Jim Murchison

(Originally, I wanted to send another writer to review this production. My principal reason was that I have auditioned for the director, so there might be a perception of conflict. An unfortunate medical emergency required me to write at the last minute.)
Playwright Robert Chafe tells the true story of the disaster in Newfoundland where the Truxtun, an American ship carrying 156 passengers went down in 1942. Only 46 survived. The central character in the play Lanier Phillips' life was transformed by that experience having only known bigotry prior to being rescued. Chafe alternates between Boston school riots in 1974 and the Truxtun disaster allowing the real people to do the storytelling. It is an effective device in showing how an act of humanity can change a life.

Set designer Shawn Kerwin has created a set that fuses story with characters and explores the symbiosis between working class people and the elements that surround them. When I walked into the theatre I saw two large step ladders upstage at opposite sides and dead centre stage was a very large step ladder designed as a giant sextant, the device that mariners have used as their primary navigation tool for centuries before computer technology took over. Downstage left was a table constructed of buckets and boards.

The cast is wonderful. Lanier Phillips is played by two different actors representing different stages of his life. Jeremiah Sparks as the elder Lanier keeping his memories of kindness he received in his pocket to fuel his focus for civil rights is powerful; as is Anderson Ryan Allen as the young Phillips dropping his very necessary guard when he experiences the unexpected kindness for the first time from white people. It is funny, moving and real. 

Jody Richardson as John Pike is a Newfoundland man whose body is racked with the pain of working the hard life of a miner. He wants and needs to save these men. It is a challenging physical and emotional performance done very well. His wife Violet played by Petrina Bromley possesses the same no nonsense; get-to-it attitude and sparks fly between the two of them, but she has a soft side too. These are not glorified, exaggerated heroes. They are hard working, wisecracking, struggling people that survive with wit and humour in a tough and isolated world. 

The voices of the entire cast stand out in another way. Kellie Walsh's musical direction of  Andrew Craig's magnificent a cappella score provides a finishing touch that is a gloriously beautiful exploration of what joins and separates southern Gospel and Celtic song.

All of this has to be coordinated and approved by director Jillian Keiley and she clearly trusts and understands the entire creative team to allow all of the different elements to so effectively congeal.

It is a terrific story that deserves to be told again. There are so many books, platforms and theories on how to promote a tolerant, inclusive society. The best example of where to start may be with the story of one naïve Newfoundland community that never learned bigotry in the first place.

May 14 -31

Running Time:  approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes with no intermission
Read also: Playwright Robert Chafe's first-person piece on creating the work

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