Glowing Production of New Work
“The dancers are all gone under the hill.” – T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets
Leaving home, or making a new one, is an essential part of human history. But if you ask anyone what home “is”, you’d get a thousand different answers. Home is really a state of mind. It can be where family is, or it can be a location on a map. One might even find “home” in another’s arms.
This notion of home lies at the centre of Theatre by the Bay’s new drama, Mary of Shanty Bay. The work, written by Leah Holder, is drawn from the diaries of Mary Sophia Gapper, who lived 200 years ago. Holder has taken these scribblings, creating both an adventure and romantic drama out of them, a tale of a woman and a man in love, and allowing their sturdy alliance to help found Shanty Bay, a village just outside of Barrie, Ontario. The resulting drama, Mary of Shanty Bay, is not only engrossing, this particular staging sets in motion ripples across time and imagination.
The play is staged mere feet from where Mary and her husband lie buried, in the graveyard of St. Thomas Anglican Church, a church they helped to build. The play, in this setting, becomes timeless, and has echoes of a “village pageant”, a re-enactment of history that is really a continuation of generations. One is very aware, especially at the start of the play, that Mary is torn between leaving family and history in one land, and creating new ones in another. At the start, it’s as if her soul is being ripped apart, immigrating to a new country. But instead of dying, her spirit reaches outward, opening a new chapter in Canada.
The drama is taken from passages in Mary’s journals, which are details about what she sees, her feelings, her travels, and of the people in her life. Originally, her plan is simple. She intends to have a singular “adventure”, coming to Canada for a year, visiting her brother, and then, returning to England, to live with her sister. Her destiny, she believes, is to help raise her sister’s children and live life as a spinster, forever unwed.
But in the course of the year, all that changes. She is approached by Benjamin Thorne, a wealthy merchant who wishes to wed her, and then by the man she falls in love with, Edward O’Brien, a retired officer. In settling on Edward, she sets in motion their mutual destiny, helping to found Shanty Bay, and building a church.
Held in the community centre next to the church, this production is memorable, due to the committed work and imagination of everyone involved. The play’s language is articulate and eloquent, as Mary is of the gentry and is fluent in reading and writing. It’s always dicey to turn literary prose journals into living drama, with interesting dialogue and action. It can come off as stiff, forced, and boring. But with Mary of Shanty Bay, everything works. Director Brandon Nicoletti has taken this long work, which runs over two hours, and moved it at a swift pace, without losing any passion.
Leah Holder, the playwright, also plays Mary Gapper with a lovely mix of genteel curiosity and grit, giving us a woman who is tenacious enough to live in what is really a wilderness. But on stage, Leah Holder really comes into her own when she is matched with Cesare Scarpone, who plays her husband, Edward O’Brien, a retired officer on half pay. In this role, Scarpone displays an easy confidence, cheer, and masculine grace on stage. Together with Leah Holder, these two actors communicate a patience, respect, and enjoyment of each other that adds a terrific sparkle to the whole drama. They seem so genuine and determined, the audience believes such a couple could found a town, or survive any struggle.
Siobhan O’Malley and Isaiah Thomas Kolundzic play several and distinct characters so convincingly, I forgot the entire cast consists of only four actors. Director Brandon Nicoletti shows a special talent here. He knows how to pick actors and he knows how to bring out the best in them. I’ve seen scores of historical productions that would put anyone to sleep, but Mary of Shanty Bay is alive with details, dramatic tension, inventiveness, and atmosphere that hold your interest. For much of that, one must credit Natalia Tcherniak (set design) and Claire McMillan (costumes), as well as sound designer, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski. Others essential to this successful venture include Jason Thompson (lighting designer), Vera Oleynikova (propsmaster), and Rosalind Naccarato, the assistant set designer.
By the way, tickets have sold extremely well for this show, and I urge anyone who can to make every effort to see it. Theatre professionals in particular would benefit from catching this little jewel.
St. Thomas Anglican Church
28 Church Street, Oro-Medonte (Shanty Bay), Ontario
May 25th- June 10th
(Previews May 23rd, May 24th)
7:30 PM and 2:00 PM performances available.
Photos: Bryan Harris, of Bryan Harris Photography