by Lynn on July 7, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Playing until September 1, 2023.

Adapted by Gil Garratt

Original writer, James Reaney

Directed by Gil Garratt

Set and lighting by Beth Kates

Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Geoffrey Armour

Masae Day

Paul Dunn

Randy Hughson

Rachel Jones

Cameron Laurie

Steven McCarthy

Hallie Seline

James Dallas Smith

Mark Uhre

A herculean effort by Gil Garratt to bring this sprawling, gripping tale of the Donnelly family to the stage in three parts. Sticks and Stones the first of the trilogy, is a  fluid, compelling production.

NOTE: The story of the Donnelly family is told in three parts over the course of the summer on the wonderful Harvest Stage: Sticks and Stones, St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs.

The Story of Sticks and Stones. This first part of the trilogy of the Donnelly family establishes who they were; why they came to Canada and the difficulties they had along the way.

James Donnelly and Johannah Magee met and married in Tipperary, Ireland. They were both Catholics. Because James Donnelly refused to join a secret catholic sect, he was given grief by those who wanted him to join. To escape this kind of persecution, James, Johannah and their first born, James Jr. sailed for Canada in 1844. They settled on 100 acres of land in Biddulph Township (near what is now London, Ont.) based on a handshake with the landlord, James Grace.

James Donnelly worked hard to maintain his farm and the crops. He and Johannah welcome more children into their family over time, eight children in all.

In 1856 Mr. Grace severs 50 acres of James Donnelly’s land and sells it to Patrick Farrell. James cannot raise the money to keep his land. He can’t read so could not argue that his agreement was not officially written down. It was based on a handshake. This starts the animosity between the Donnelly’s and Patrick Farrell and their other neighbours. The matter is taken to court. The judge sees the improvements that James Donnelly made to the land in 10 years and rules James is allowed to keep 50 acres of his original land.

1857. James gets into a fight with Patrick Farrell and kills him. James is sentenced to be hanged. Johannah gathers names in a petition to have the sentence changed and travels a huge distance by foot to present it to the Governor General. The sentence is commuted to seven years in prison. The animosity does not end when James is released and reaches a horrifying conclusion when neighbours take revenge.

If ever there was a story about religious intolerance and the blinkered animosity of neighbour for neighbour, the story of the Donnelly family and what they endured, is it.

The Production and comment. For my performance, a stagecoach circles the area of the Harvest Stage and brings James (Randy Hughson) and Johannah Donnelly (Rachel Jones) to the theatre. Magic.

Beth Kates’ set is rustic, efficient and evocative of the pioneer spirit needed to build a home for a growing family in the early days of Upper Canada. There is a piano up over there; a hat stand, table and chairs, ropes and tools for farming. The space is not cluttered with stuff and there is room to move this sweeping story along. And director Gil Garratt has a delicate but firm touch in negotiating this large talented cast around the space.  The production begins with a beautiful song sung by the cast who also play many instruments to set things up.

Young Will Donnelly (Steven McCarthy) establishes what he has contended with. He describes himself as crippled and that he has been called a ‘blackfoot’ a pejorative name hurled by one Catholic person to others they feel are lesser. Steven McCarthy plays Will Donnelly through various ages, from young to a mature man, with grace, a quiet courtliness and a sweet innocence when he is the younger Will.

We then go back in time to the beginning of the story in Ireland. James Donnelly, played with gruff authority by Randy Hughson, is determined to take his family to Canada for safety and a new life. Randy Hughson plays James Donnelly with sturdy conviction. James is a man of few words. He is also a man of huge character. He stands up for what is right and will fight his position. Hughson conveys the confusion and frustration of James when he realizes that his land has been taken from him by James Grace and that the handshake of the two meant nothing. One is fully aware at the many and various slights, cheats and humiliations that James Donnelly had to endure by the strong acting of Randy Hughson. By James Donnelly’s side is his wife Johannah, played with a determined conviction by Rachel Jones. As full of character as James is, so is Johannah. They instill that in their children. Her determination to save her husband by gathering all those petition names, and then trudging to the Governor General is a testament to her resolve. We get a sense of the huge distance she travelled by Gil Garratt’s staging and Rachel Jones physicality of the difficult journey.

Cameron Laurie as Pat Farrell, one of James Donnelly’s enemies is a dark and forbidding presence. Mark Uhre as John Cassleigh is also another enemy of James Donnelly. Mark Uhre plays Cassleigh with a smooth arrogance and condescension. The animosity that the Donnelly’s endured is carefully created by director Gil Garratt and his cast.

One can certainly appreciate the complex story of the Donnelly’s over time. The programme outlines a detailed timeline for details and dates of births, deaths and details. Gil Garratt’s respect for the original plays of James Reaney that dealt with this huge Donnelly story, is so obvious in his efforts to adapt the plays.

Garratt goes into great detail to establish the lay of the land that James and his family settled on in Biddulph Township. Garratt names the roads, the concessions, who owned the land. Garratt stages the cast in circling motions, intertwining lines and variations. Over the course of the play these formations and recitations of the names will be repeated.

I admit that I found the detail bogged down the story. I don’t think this minute detail or the extended circling and entwining enhances the story. It’s James Donnelly’s interactions with his neighbours and how he dealt with them that keep the story charging along.

Still, to hear the Donnelly story again, after so long (I saw a version of it years ago) is thrilling and unsettling when one knows what happened to that family.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until September 1, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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