by Lynn on July 29, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Blyth Festival, Memorial Hall, Blyth, Ont. Plays until Sept. 2, 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. The St. Nicholas Hotel is the second part of the Trilogy. It’s very movement based. It also shows how evil rumor and innuendo can spread to sully a reputation, as happened to the Donnelly family.

Background: If there is a warning on the news of a torrential storm coming with the possibility of developing into a tornado, you stay home. However, I got in my car to drive to Blyth last week to see the second installment of The Donnellys: A Trilogy adapted by Blyth Artistic Director Gil Garratt. They work hard there and were fearless during the pandemic. I know, sure, others do too, but Blyth is different. So I got in the car and set out.  I got an e-mail from the Blyth Festival Press Department to tell me that because of the possibility of a storm/tornado, they were moving the performance from the Harvest Stage (for which it was created) to indoors at the Memorial Hall.

All was good. I brought water to keep me hydrated; wholesome snacks to keep me alert and had good weather until I got to Cambridge. It began raining in Cambridge. Then it began teaming. I kept driving. At the cut-off for Stratford Highway 7 and 8 the traffic was zipping along, until it wasn’t. The rain was coming down so hard, people around me had their flashers on. I put mine on too to alert people not to come too close cause I could not see the lines on the road and was afraid I would veer into another lane. My hands gripped the steering wheel and I think cramped around it. My sphincter was becoming uncontrollable. Turning around was a slight possibility but I was determined to be careful and get there.

I figured, if I could just get to the Nafziger Road turnoff, I’d be ok. It’s a country road. It’s simple. It would be ok. The rain did not pelt as much. It began to ease up. As I got deeper and deeper into back-road-country, the rain let up. There in the distance was clear, blue sky. Perhaps a hint of sun too. My hands stopped gripping the steering wheel. However, I hope I can eventually get the driver’s seat clean.

The Story and production. The Programme information says it best: With grit, and unbridled ambition, the Donnelly brothers strike out to find their fortunes. When the enterprising William Donnelly starts a stagecoach line running North from London, together the boys drive horses, freight, and passengers to great success. However, they are also drawing the resentment and rage of their rivals. And so begin the fabled Stage Coach Wars.

When barns burn, horses go missing (or worse), the constabulary can’t keep the boys in line, and the courtrooms fail to contain them, others take action. Justice gets meted out ankle-deep in the muddy roads, or above the din in the beer-drenched taverns. Or at least, until some of those stagecoach rivals start forming a secret society of their own in the Cedar Swamp…

High romance, barroom brawls, and an irrepressible instinct to raise hell on the Roman Line.”

The performance moved to the Memorial Hall from the outdoor Harvest Stage in order to ensure all were safe from the impending lousy weather. There was an arrangement of wood chairs upstage across the stage and several trunks in various formations downstage. The trunks would be reconfigured into tables, stagecoaches and various other things, all of which were wonderfully creative. Kudos to Beth Kates, the set and lighting designer.

The Donnelly family of James (Randy Hughson), Johannah (Rachel Jones), James Jr. (Geoffrey Armour), Will (Steven McCarthy), Michael (Mark Uhre), Tom (Cameron Laurie) and Jenny (Hallie Seline) were all industrious, tenacious, and wily. They were successful in business when they formed their stagecoach company. They were unfailingly polite to the costumers, stood their ground with their enemies, like James Carroll (Geoffrey Armour), Andrew Keefe (Paul Dunn), and George Stubb (James Dallas Smith).

Director Gil Garratt created a fluid production that was occasionally movement based, music hall and almost balletic in some instances. For example James Carroll and his stage coach were always racing the Donnelly brothers’ stagecoach to reach their destination first. As James Carroll, Geoffrey Armour suggested the stagecoach by standing on one of the trunks and in an exaggerated bending of his knees, arms out front, flopping, simulated the furious bumping and speed of driving the coach and flipping the reins to urge on the horses.

The Donnelly brothers, Will (Steve McCarthy) and Michael (Mark Uhre) on the other hand, are also on a trunk and their style is more elegant. They are not only smart businessmen, they are accomplished riders and drivers, and without wasting energy, they efficiently get to their destination without incident.

As Will Donnelly, Steve McCarthy strikes an almost dashing pose in a long black coat and a quiet demeanor. While his brother Michael played by Mark Uhre is as self-contained, quiet and watchful. Both men are rather courtly in the behaviour even with their enemies.

But it’s how they treat the women in their lives that also sets them apart. They are respectful of their mother Johanna and sister Jenny. They are tender and caring for their wives. Contrast that with a scene in which James Carroll (Geoffrey Armour) comes to the Donnelly house and threatens Johanna when James isn’t there. He is overbearing, bullying and challenging. Johanna, again a wonderful Rachel Jones, quietly and forcefully stands her ground and turns the intimidation around.

Wonderful work. I’m looking forward to the last instalment of Handcuffs next week.

The Blyth Festival Presents:

Plays until Sept. 2, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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