by Lynn on August 19, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Blyth Festival

Written by Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt
Directed by Paul Thompson
Performed by Gil Garratt
Set, lighting and projections by Beth Kates
Sound by Lyon Smith

A fascinating story of the notorious Donnelly family that shows another side of the story.

The Story. The Last Donnelly Standing which is about the notorious Donnelly Family, sometimes referred to as “the black Donnellys” who lived around Lucan, Ontario.

This family had a loaded history indeed. Some background of The Last Donnelly Standing. The father was originally from Ireland. The elder Donnelly came to Canada from Ireland, married and started a family in South-Western Ontario. He and his wife had seven sons. He wanted to own a farm and so rented land from an unscrupulous landlord who cheated him. One thing led to another and the father killed the landlord and went to jail. That started what seemed to be a chain reaction of woe for the family. The show touches on the various brothers and how they lived and the neighbours who gave them trouble.

In the late 1880’s vigilantes surprised the family and burned their home to the ground killing everybody inside. There was a trial and a 10-year-old witness. The last Donnelly standing is brother Patrick, who tried to be a peace-loving poet. But it was hard because of the animosity of the people in the area.

The Production. The play was co-written by Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt and co-created by Beth Kates. This is Paul Thompson’s sixth outing working on a play about the Donnelly’s. The guy knows of what he says.

Thompson and Garratt tackle the storytelling cheekily, with a wink at times. We are told by Garratt as Robert Donnelly that the story is too wild to be believed; too complex. That way the co-creators let themselves off the hook. I love that wink to the audience.

They also assume that the people of the area will know the story or some of it at least, (Lucan is just up the road to London, Ont.) So we are introduced to the seven brothers who each taught their next younger brother how do defend themselves and thus got a reputation for being bruisers and perhaps difficult.

At one point Gil Garratt says, “I supposed you’ve been waiting for the fire,” or something to that effect because that is the centre of the horror that befell this family. A group of vigilantes road up to the family house in the dead of night and set the house of fire and killed all who were in it except the 10-year-old witness.

How does one person tell such a huge story? With a lot of energy. Gil Garratt plays many parts not just Robert. He plays many instruments that augment the story-telling and sings songs that accompany all that for further illumination. He has an easy, seductive, impish way with him that charms both women and men equally. Women want to tame him. Men want to be him. He looks into the audience for a few volunteers for a wedding scene and charms people into agreeing. He can look dark and brooding in one scene and then courtly and agreeable in the next.

We are told at the beginning that we must use our imaginations to envision various goings on. We are up for that; agreeable to the request. But then there is a barrage of projected images and lighting created by the gifted Beth Kates, that augment each scene coupled with the evocative soundscape by Lyon Smith that sweep us away into the story.

Initially I think that the request to imagine and the many projections might be at odds and pull our focus but in reality they serve each other. Garratt is such a compelling actor that the projections only add to a scene. Garratt aggressively plays the accordion when describing the fire to the Donnelly house, with a projections of wild flames in the background, accompanied by the crackle sound of the fire. The result is chilling.

Kates has designed a wood shell of the house of the Donnelly’s that can be moved and shifted to create various locations. Here again is where our imagination is grabbed.

Director Paul Thompson keeps the pace going at breakneck speed because the events unfold like that. And there is always the sense of the impish wink going on here. With the flames blazing in the background; the sound cracking too, a Donnelly opens a trap door and descends, into hell one wonders? The scene is gripping but that nod to a Donnelly going to hell is just as unsettling and funny in a way.

Comment. I think The Last Donnelly Standing shows how maligned the family was perhaps without cause. The father was cheated of his land and that started the chain reaction of standing one’s ground and perhaps getting a bad reputation. That family tried to stand up for their rights. Robert Donnelly was not violent and wanted to hold his own.

He bought a house on the main street in Lucan, his home town, and greeted everyone who passed. For whatever reason folks might not have taken kindly to him, but that doesn’t mean he’s deserving of bad treatment.

I think it’s something in the water in that part of Ontario. Just up the road is Clinton where Steven Truscotte was wrongfully accused of killing a classmate and no one would believe him when he said he didn’t do it; or when new evidence pointed elsewhere. Same with the Donnellys further up the road to London.

The Last Donnelly Standing is an intriguing, gripping story that will make you search out books that will tell you more.

Terrific production.

Produced by the Blyth Festival.

Closes: September 2.
Cast: 1 talented man.
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes approx.

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