Russ Hunt's Reviews

by Josh MacDonald

Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company
The Playhouse, October 2003

Most Maritimers will remember the fuss about the apparition of the Virgin Mary on the side of a Tim Horton's in Cape Breton a couple of years ago.  Josh MacDonald, the author of Halo, clearly remembered, and clearly remembered with the same mixture of amusement and compassion that many people felt. On the one hand, what conceivably would be the Blessed Virgin's motivation for creating a such a miraculous sign (across the street from the Lick-a-Chick, as I remember)? On the other, how strong is the need for signs to support a challenged faith that substantial numbers of people flocked to witness the miracle?

In the play he's constructed about a fictionalized version of this event -- here, it's the nonexistent town of Nately, Nova Scotia, and it's Jesus himself who appears on the side of the coffee shop -- MacDonald pushes together the two emotions, amusement and a kind of understanding compassion, and produces a play that snaps back and forth between laughter and, well, if not quite tears, certainly that lump-in-the-throat feeling.  He does it by creating some genuinely funny dialogue, and putting it in the mouths of people we come to care about, people with understandable human problems.

The basic premise is double. One story centers on Casey, who is back in Nately (she thinks temporarily) working at Tim's while she gets herself together.  We follow her attempts to deal with her detestation of the small and isolated community, and the relationships she's building.  One, which she thinks is just sexual, but may be more, is with a local athlete, Jansen; the other is with the new and unwelcomed parish priest, father J.J., whose parishioners see him as some sort of dirty hippie ("I know I'm not Father McEvoy . . . " he says apologetically, and gets the response, "Father McEvoy would wear proper footwear.")  The second story revolves around Donald McMullen, whose daughter is on life support as the result of an accident, and his faith that even though the doctors have insisted she's brain-dead and will never come around, has been haunting her bedside, praying and neglecting his life in the vain hope that a miracle might happen. It's just before Christmas and her older sister Lizzie has come home to see just how bad things are.

In the midst of all this the apparition on the side of the building creates a Lourdes-like pilgrimage site and a media frenzy, with the consequences you might expect.  What's particularly impressive about this play and this production, though, is the way it's all brought into one acting space, with minimal props and an imaginative use of the actors' physical presence.  The convention of moving from one scene to another by having the entire cast burst into snatches of Christmas songs while carrying on their business is a remarkably effective one.  While I wasn't quite as sure about the swing-out counter which was the Tim Horton's servery, it did remind me how elegantly everything else was achieved, inside the circle of vertical walls which defined the acting space and were punctuated only by a curtained opening at the rear in which the hospital bed for the comatose Meg was housed.

Equally impressive was the tightness of the blocking.  Scenes succeeded one another with lighting precision, the unctuous and phony TV reporter alternating with authentically touching scenes between Casey and Father J.J. or Lizzie and her father, or the near-slapstick of the relationship between Casey and the hapless but sincere (and occasionally sensible) Jansen. The seven-member cast carried it off with what seemed effortless timing; especially impressive were Francine Deschepper and Geoff McBride, identified in the program only as playing "Various," who provided a context against which the five principals were able to create a believable set of relationships.  Among the principals, Jim Fowler as Jansen managed to keep his character from becoming simply a caricature -- he's not simply a dumb jock -- and Susan LeBlanc-Craword was convincingly cynical and yet still somehow optimistic as Casey.  John Dartt's Donald was appropriately sympathetic and still able to get a laugh: most likely to be seen as a crude attempt to create sympathy, he managed to make us believe he was not just a victim.  Particularly affecting was the moment when, seated at the foot of Meg's bed, he made, finally, the decision to allow the plug to be pulled, and signaled it by letting the helium balloon that had been fixed to the foot of the bed sail up into the flies.

Kirsten Tough's bright, concerned Lizzie ("The neurologists say 'an insult to the brain,' like someone called it a name and it decided to go home for good, to hid in the dark.  CAT got your scan") and Marty Burt's dotty but compassionate Father J.J. ("I've been here for a year and they still see me as wrong. Then something appears on a wall, and, overnight, they love it.") both fill out characters who might have been clichés with warmth and discipline.

Flawed?  Yes. I was never sure about Casey's confession that it was she who'd put Jesus on the wall, nor with the crowd's reported reaction to it; there were moments when I felt, yes, manipulated.  Worth seeing? Absolutely.  You won't see anything very much like it any time soon.  This is the sort of play that could make a Christmas show that might actually struggle through the fog of saccharine around the holiday and actually generate a bit of clarity, about miracles, and death, and loneliness.

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