Review: St. Francis of Millbrook

by Lynn on August 26, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At 4th Line Theatre Company, Millbrook, Ont. Written by Sky Gilbert. Directed by Kim Blackwell. Set by Denise Lisson. Costumes by Jacqueline Campbell. Sound by Beau Dixon. Music by Justin Hiscox. Choreography by Rachel Bemrose.

Playing at 4th Line Theatre until September 1.

It’s the 1990’s. Luke lives and works on his family’s farm near Millbrook, Ont. He loves every aspect of farming, unlike his younger brother Shane who doesn’t and gets out of working as often as possible. But Shane let’s drop the news that their father Jake will not leave the farm to Luke, which would seem logical. He will leave it to Shane. The reason is that Jake thinks there are strange things going on in Luke’s life. For example, he likes Madonna and always listens and dances to her music. He likes hanging out with his younger sister and her girl friends. And it’s soon learned that Luke got a bellybutton ring along with his sister. All reasons to be concerned, it seems, for Luke’s father and mother Monica.

After much angst Luke does know that he’s different, and eventually he reveals to Ruby, the local odd-ball-hippy, that he’s gay. Luke is terrified to tell his parents. When Jake learns that Luke has quit the hockey team, of which Luke is the star, his father is furious. When Luke then tells his father that he’s gay, Jake reacts like a stereotypical bully. He beats him up.

Never mind that Jake seems to deal with all sorts of problems by drinking. There’s a drought. Jake drinks in despair. There’s a bit of rain. Jake drinks in celebration. He’s disappointed in life. Jake drinks. His son is gay and Jake is humiliated. Jake drinks. Never mind that Luke is probably a better farmer than his father. Never mind that all the difficulties and hardships of farming are met by Luke with a sunny disposition and optimism, and a lot of guidance from the sayings of St. Francis of Assisi—Luke is devoted to his writings.

Luke works it out. He accepts who he is. It might be more difficult for his father. His mother tries to run interference between father and son, but she certainly has her difficulties with her alcoholic husband.

As with all shows at 4th Line, the company is a mix of professional, community and kids from the area. It’s to director Kim Blackwell’s credit that she creates a cohesive whole of the production. And her sense of how to use the whole of the farm, including the far pastures, is just a treat. It’s quite thrilling to see a man on a palomino trotting through the growth in the fields and then saunter up to the farm yard. In a way that character is Luke’s knight (not quite in shining armour) come to save him from his loneliness. There is also a dazzling scene when Luke pulls a blue cloak of sorts out of the field and drapes it around him as a large flock of pigeons, on cue, fly into the air. Terrific image.

As Luke, Nathaniel Bacon gives a fine performance of a young man conflicted. He is both at home doing hard work in the field and getting lost in the music of Madonna as he dances in that same field to “Like a Prayer.” I did have a problem though with a scene. When Luke is clearing rocks in the far field and sees John, the man on the horse in the barnyard and is beckoned to come and meet him, Luke throws the rocks in the air and runs, arms and legs flapping, dare one say, effeminately, towards the barn. The interesting thing is that no one mentions that Luke is effeminate in behaviour, only that he likes Madonna etc. I think that ungainly running is a miss-step, and too stereotypical. I know we have hind-sight of the last 15 years, but still….

As Shane, Griffin Clark is all tussle-haired shlumpy. He’s a pushy jock with attitude and it works beautifully as Luke’s younger lazy brother. As Jake, William Foley is harried, worried and belligerent when drunk. It’s a careful balancing act here. And as the irrepressible Ruby, the wise-hippy friend of Luke’s, Elley-Ray Hennessy is irrepressible.

Robert Winslow, Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre and owner of the lovely Winslow family farm on which all the performances take place, has been responsible for producing plays that celebrate the history and stories of the area. Sometimes they are based on real people such as Marie Dressler, the subject of Queen Marie, the first show of this season. Dressler was born in Cobourg but raised in Lindsay, Ont. Often Winslow commissions playwrights to work on certain subjects and he does not shy away from difficult issues either. He opened his first season 20 years ago with The Cavan Blazers a play about the animosity of Catholic and Protestant immigrants from Ireland, who brought their belligerence to the area when they settled there.

With that curious, forward thinking attitude, Winslow commissioned Sky Gilbert to write about being gay in a farming community. Gilbert has made a career of writing about gay issues. He created Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto to deal with gay, lesbian, transgendered themes and he has written prolifically on those issues, over the last thirty years or more.

I think his writing has been served by the workshop/review process of this particular commission. He certainly has benefited from having another director (Blackwell) direct his work. Often Gilbert both writes and directs his own work—always tricky, that. That said, there are some intriguing moments in St. Francis of Millbrook. Luke’s grappling with his suspicion that he is gay is believable. The inclusion of fantasy moments, where a bare-chested man rides up on a beautiful horse to save him is charming and sweet. Certainly the suspicion that Luke is different and the resulting animosity when he comes out to his parents is realistic. Even with the hindsight of 15 years that animosity is still a reality for many gay men and women.

But I was troubled with Ruby saying that she used to be gay but now wasn’t and covered that by saying “It’s a long story.” It might be a long story, but it seemed like a cop out. And I didn’t think the play went far enough with Luke’s mother having to make a stand against her husband regarding Luke. I thought the play too polite at times. Perhaps another go round of re-writes is in order. I’m glad the issue was addressed. And of course, glad I saw it.

St. Francis of Millbrook plays at 4th Line Theatre until September 1.

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