Review: 1812

by Lynn on June 8, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming until Wed. June 9

Reading presented digitally by the Foster Festival, St. Catharines, Ont.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Jim Mezon

Cast: André Anthony

Mairi Babb

Ellen Denny

Jon-Alex MacFarlane

David Nairn

Patricia Yeatman

It’s June, 1812. Wallace Edwards (David Nairn) is a robust, good-natured man but he’s having trouble remembering his wife’s name, or any name for that matter. He was thrown from his horse and he lost his memory as a result, and his dignity I would expect. He tries to carry on but keeps forgetting that his wife is Millicent (Patricia Yeatman), their daughter is Caroline (Ellen Denny) and the maid is Henrietta (Mairi Babb). There were other servants too but they had to be let go because money was tight, and even though Wallace is the mayor of St. Stephens, New Brunswick, the salary is a pittance. Millicent does the best she can to economize. Wallace seems befuddled about everything around him, although he’s cheerful. Again, we have to blame all this odd behaviour on his dive from the horse.

Caroline, always resourceful, put a shoe on her own horse that morning. A neighbour heard about it and sent one of his men, (Ben Strong by name  (André Anthony)) over to see if he could lend a hand. Wallace and Millicent wondered how such news got around. Ben said that it was a small town and news does travel quickly. This is one of the sweet recurring jokes of Norm Foster’s play—everybody hears the news before it seems to be news. This would also provide one of the more poignant moments in the play, when news did not travel as quickly as it should have.

Over time Ben and Caroline would become close friends, often riding together on their respective horses. Ben was a courtly fellow. He was born and educated in England. His father was a ship captain transporting Black people from Africa to other places to be slaves. Ben’s father fell in love with one of the women he was transporting and took her to England where they married and had Ben. Ben was well educated and came to America. While Wallace was cordial when he met Ben Wallace was his usual gauche, insensitive self and asked, “Are you a Negro?” Yes, Ben was in fact a Negro and nothing more was made of that, except in a few beautifully placed Foster moments of supposition and jumped conclusions that land us squarely on our assumptions.

Ben became a welcome guest in the Edwards’ house. To help Wallace get back his memory, Ben taught Wallace Italian. The thinking was that having to learn and remember a new language would twig Wallace to remember what he forgot when his horse threw him, including Millicent’s name.  (This sounds like such a flight of Foster fancy, learning another language to get your memory back, that if in fact it is true, well fine, but Foster conjuring it is hilarious, as is.  

St. Stephens, New Brunswick is just across the bridge over a bit of water from Calais, Maine. The townsfolk of both small communities are great friends. Such good friends are they that the good people of Calais, Maine ask the equally good people of St. Stephens, New Brunswick if they can borrow some gunpowder for their July 4th celebrations, and their Canadian neighbours  happily obliged, even though war had been declared earlier in June. Actually the British and the United States were at war and Canada was mixed up in there too, but the people of the two neighbouring towns wanted no part of the waring animosity. It’s hard to avoid war when a militia is formed on the other side (all thought they didn’t have gun powder). So matters escalated.

This is a Norm Foster play so animosity and harshness are not strong points. Wisdom and humour are. So when characters on either sides try and one-up each other about what one side did to the other (quiet Canadians seem to have burned down an important white house on the other side) the reality is funny and sobering. Foster makes the strongest argument against war in his usual understated way, but he has Millicent voice it and that is resounding. When you least expect it, Foster sends zingers in the air that land right in your heart.

The cast is wonderful under the equally skilled direction of Jim Mezon. David Nairn plays Wallace with good-natured confidence but with an air that he might not be ‘reading the room’ as clearly as he should because of his accident. As Millicent, Patricia Yeatman is patience personified with a touch of exasperation. The closeness of the relationship between that husband and wife is clear in the playing of David Nairn and Patricia Yeatman. Caroline is an independent woman thanks to Mairi Babb performance of her. She can shoe a horse, stare down any man who dares to be over-bearing and is wise enough to meet her match in Ben. André Anthony plays Ben with great charm, grace and integrity. Director Jim Mezon realizes the nuance and subtlety in the script along with his smart cast.

There are weighty matters that are discussed in 1812 and Norm Foster accomplishes it in this thoughtful, funny moving play.

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