Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Donnellys
Part I: Sticks and Stones
by James Reaney

Theatre UNB
Memorial Hall, January 2003

There can't be many scripts which offer more challenges to a directorthan James Reaney's trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family. Besidesall the narrative and expository freight inherent in the telling of thiscomplex historical saga, there's the fact that Reaney says the freighthas mostly to be carried by a cast who are expected to do most of the tellingand explaining with their bodies, through mime, something a lot like dance,choral speaking, and "story theatre" style show and tell.

What was most striking about Theatre UNB's production for me was theway director Len Falkenstein not only took the challenges on board, butdid it in the legendarily inhospitable confines of Memorial Hall, and addedin the problems posed by theatre in the round. As he has done frequentlybefore, he reoriented the entire space, pretty much ignoring the raisedstage, and building an acting space in the middle of the floor, puttinga couple of rows of audience up on the stage. Mike Johnston's set was remarkablein its flexibility and simplicity: one rectangular acting level on topof another a bit larger, with slots to insert free-standing ladders (whichstood in for many objects, including the front of the Donnelly's houseand at one point a couple of falling trees). Some of the problems of stagingposed by the fact that the cast was surrounded by audience were solvedby the ladders, which made a wonderfully transparent house, for example.

Most Canadians know the name of the "Black Donnellys," and a remarkablenumber know a good deal about the family's history, and especially theway in which feuds which accompanied them from Ireland in the mid-nineteenthcentury dominated their new life in the backwoods of Ontario. Much of thereason for that fame is the success of James Reaney's dramatic trilogy,first performed at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in the early seventies,and hardly out of the dramatic repetory since. Even so, it's difficultto follow the dense language and swift changes of place and time of Reaney'sexposition. The unusually full and useful program helped with that -- ifyou had time to read it while listening to the skillful fiddle, guitarand banjo music by Pat Hanley and Troy Fulton which not only introducedthe play but punctuated and underlay the action all evening. If it wasdifficult to keep up with the complicated exposition of the geography andpolitics of land claims and contracts, we couldn't fault the company fortrying, as they laid out with their bodies the fencing off of border linesand boundaries, and impersonated fenceposts and draft horses.

The fourteen member cast populated and shaped the acting space all evening,in a remarkable display of ensemble acting. The audience was never invitedto be conscious of the sheer effort and discipline involved in gettingthe people and objects where they were needed: we simply moved effortlesslyfrom a tavern to a field to a house to a mental space where trials wereenacted by groups screaming at each other from opposite corners of theacting space. Lanterns appeared, were lit and transformed the room, andthen disappeared without our noticing. Lighting was spot on, flexible,and far more difficult than it appeared to be, as, for example, at momentswhen trial records were being read (a process one might expect to be prettydull), and the opposing sides grouped across from each other, each aroundtheir ladder, one lit green and the other red.

There were some remarkable performances, as well.Julie MacDonald as a strong, vivacious, and self-possessed Mrs. Donnelly,for instance, was not only consistently focused and disciplined, she wasalso the most consistently understandable person on stage. Marissa Robinson'sJenny was powerful and affecting when, as she comes into her own in thethird act, surrounded by the hissing and jeering cast as the hostile neighbours,she voices the spirit of the indomitable family. Beth Boutillier and MarcPaquet, as Mr. and Mrs. Fat, in their grotesque doughboy costumes, gotthe laughs where we needed them.

Still, as is becoming a tradition in Len Falkenstein's productions,the star was the ensemble, and in some ways it's a bad idea to pull individualsout for special notice. They wouldn't be what they were but for everythingelse in the production. What I liked most about the evening was watchingthe way the blocking, the maps for where characters were to be and go duringthe scenes, kept every part of the house engaged in the action. Theatrein the round requires that the cast move a lot more, and in different ways,than conventional theatre, and it doesn't happen instinctively: it needsto be planned. This is a challenge for amateur actors, and one I'm happyto see them engaged with. The discipline required to make choral speakingcomprehensible to the audience was generally tight, again demonstratingthe coherence of the ensemble.

Sure, there were problems. The evening seemed long: Reaney seems sometimesto be telling us far more than we need to know about these people. Accentswere, shall we say, varied. And many of the cast, even given all the helpof the brilliant blocking -- amounting to choreography -- still were oftenunintelligible, failing to project their lines to the people behind them:that's always a problem with staging amateur productions in the round (it'soften a problem with professional productions, too). In this case the benefitsof such staging -- the way we in the audience were invited into complicitywith the society surrounding the beleaguered Donnellys, partly throughdevices like having the family surrounded by a hissing, jeering crowd crouchedin a circle around them, a circle which wanted to include us -- made upfor the fact that we lost a substantial amount of Reaney's language, anda good deal of the exposition (some of the actors -- notably Julie MacDonald-- did manage to make the language sing out even when their backs wereto us).

Now, perhaps we can see Part Two, and find out what happens to thatpowerful Jenny Donnelly who strikes such a heroic pose at the close ofthis one?

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