Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) The Glace Bay Miners' Museum

Francine Deschepper and Gil Garratt (photo: André Lanthier via NAC website)

A Maritime Story
by Jim Murchison
When you first walk into the theatre and see the beautifully rustic set design by Sue Lepage, it instantly informs you that you will be in for an evening of intimate story telling and human struggle. The central component is a cramped kitchen and the staircase that spirals around the stage right side does not have a single step that is exactly the same size or shape hinting to the audience that this is a community that has to make do with whatever is available. Paul Cram's sound design further sets the mood as the tin flute plays over the sound of the surf and Leigh Ann Vardy's light scape splashes across the sky.
I have to admit that I have a bias for maritime stories as I myself grew up listening to family tales, games, music and jokes in cramped seaside kitchens. I also had the profound and frightening experience of being at the face of a working coal mine in Sydney Mines and met the men that worked there. The beautiful thing about well crafted theatre is that it can transport you to that common part of the heart that informs all humanity regardless of personal experience, so I believe this production will touch everyone with its caustic wit, pain and warmth.
This season features plays written by women and this launches it beautifully.
Margaret MacNeil is a young woman in 1940's Cape Breton that has already been beset by the tragedy of the loss of a brother and father swallowed by the pit. Francine Deschepper plays her with a feisty, combative charm and disarming frankness that is honest as her Maritime accent. She is also the principal narrator of the story and the audience hangs on her every word.
Margaret feigns disinterest in the brashly arrogant but charming Neil Currie but is obviously smitten. Neil has just returned from the war to very little prospect of work but a determination to not work in the pit or go on relief. Gil Garratt possesses a gravelly voiced, rugged swagger as Neil, but it is just a veneer over the true idealistic poet minstrel that is the real heart of the character. The play is greatly helped by not only his acting skill but that he can switch from bagpipes to tin flute, to fiddle at the drop of a hat.
The MacNeil matriarch Catherine, has been forced to wear a hard shell to survive the loss of her husband and child. Martha Irving plays the stern no-nonsense side of a woman forced to stretch one chicken to feed five people over three days perfectly, which makes it all the more fun when her whimsical side is coaxed out of her.
Ian MacNeil is the surviving son dedicated to the Union, striving to improve conditions and wages. Jeff Schwager plays world weariness in perfect balance with youthful idealism. Ian and Neil have a competitiveness and respect for each other that underlines the spirit of fighting for something better when nothing better exists.
Grandpa is the ever present voiceless history of the mine. David Francis infuses a dignity and humour to this character who has been robbed of his voice by the bituminous dust that coats his lungs.
This season features plays written by women and this launches it beautifully. Wendy Lill not only respects Sheldon Currie's story, but understands the characters and has crafted a play that pays homage to the men that literally dedicated their lives to feeding their families and the women that were often the only ones left to hold things together after the inevitable death and disease that accompanied the arduous work. Mary Vingoe's direction ensures that all of the pieces remain in balance so that the sum of the parts is as great as the characters that carry the story.
If you have ever sat around a table and sung a song; if you have ever worked at a job you hated; if you ever had a sip of rum; told a joke or felt desperate about anything you should understand this play. If you don't love these people and their story, you must be daft, boy. 

1 comment:

  1. On the 12 March I had the wonderful pleasure for the first time in my life of watching an on stage play. Having grown up in Glace Bay and my father and his brothers being coalminers, I heard every story about the pits during each meal time and then some. I truly enjoyed the performance and the acting was excellent. I was so impressed that I shall attend future plays in Halifax. Bravo Zulu to the actors and staff that put on such a first rate production.
    John Le Forte


Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.