by Lynn on September 10, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Perth Museum, produced by Here for Now Theatre,  Stratford, Ont. Playing until Sept. 23, 2023.

Written by Judith Thompson

Directed by Murdoch Schon

Set by Bonnie Deakin

Costumes by Barbara Kozicki Beall

Cast: Clare Coulter

Allegra Fulton

Caroline Gillis

Michael Neale


Cait Watson

A senior in a nursing home imagines herself as a Warrior Queen, proving that old age is not for sissies. A world premiere from Judith Thompson in a production worthy of celebration.

The Story. Mrs. Nurmi is a bitter, old woman, living in a run down, shabby nursing home in Cornwall, Ont. Almost no one visits. One day her beloved grandson Jake comes with a great idea for a podcast series on the stars. All he needs is the money and he wants Mrs. Nurmi to provide it. Mrs. Nurmi is also estranged from her daughter (Jake’s mother) and we learn why eventually. When Mrs. Nurmi has to face these obstacles, she conjures her alter-ego, Queen Maeve, a warrior Irish queen who led her troupes 3000 years ago.

The Production. Director Murdoch Schon’s production is suffused with care. The audience sits under a tent and one side is open to the fields in the distance. Bonnie Deakin’s set of Mrs. Nurmi’s modest room has a comfortable easy chair with well-worn pillows, a set of drawers and other bits. To the far stage left side is a covered stump, a standing microphone and various musical instruments, especially penny whistles and a variation of a flute. This is where musician Cait Watson sits quietly creating beautiful, ethereal, Irish-sounding music for the show. She wears a costume that looks like it’s from another time; robes over robes. It can reference those times when Mrs. Nurmi becomes Queen Maeve, ready to wreak havoc, but accompanied by lilting Irish music and various sound effects. When she isn’t playing the music, Cait Watson watches the scene attentively, and of course so do we.

Mrs. Nurmi (Clare Coulter) sits in her easy chair. She wears a nightgown and pajama bottoms. Siobhan (Caroline Gillis) her Personal Service Worker, (dressed in functional pants and a top) slowly cleans the floor with a large mop. The strokes are methodical and thorough. She does not rush this job. It’s important for Siobhan to take care.

When she leaves, Mrs. Nurmi played by the fearless Clare Coulter, rises and stands center and discourses on her world, how she found herself in Cornwall, of all places, the shabbiness of the nursing home, her loneliness, her beloved grandson, her estranged daughter, getting older. It’s a performance by Clare Coulter, this towering presence in Canadian theatre, that is quirky, knowing, ferocious, prescient and so full of detail that one thinks to one’s self “God, I’ve missed seeing you on a stage.” And the same can be said of the playwright, Judith Thompson. The dialogue dances and trips off the tongue. It’s poetic, literate, and conjures a woman of intelligence and imagination.

Mrs. Nurmi’s beloved grandson, Jake (Michael Neale), arrives (we see him walking outside the tent making his way inside), bearing a bouquet of flowers. He’s just travelled far from Sudbury to Cornwall, by bus, just to see her. She is delighted. So is he. She wants to know all about how he’s kept himself. Here Clare Coulter’s face crinkles in a smile. She is exuberant and totally loving to Jake.  Michael Neale as Jake is a bit awkward yet lively, buoyant it seems. He’s been fine but has had some bad luck. He’s got a great idea for a podcase series on the stars—he’s always loved the stars. It’s just that he needs money for the technical side and hopes that his grandmother will provide it.

In a flash, Clare Coulter’s loving Mrs. Nurmi disappeared. The face sagged; the eyes peered. Suspicion entered the room. Jake pleaded in desperation. Mrs. Nurmi knew the money would be used for drugs and she promised his counsellor she would not give him money. And then from nowhere Mrs. Nurmi had a huge sword in her hand. She was transported back 3000 years. She spoke Irish? Perhaps intoning a spell. She swung the sword overhead and Jake fell to the ground.  Clare Coulter as Mrs. Nurmi says with regret that she killed her grandson. “Figuratively.”

Mrs. Nurmi conjures her Queen Maeve when she is triggered—either challenged, lied to, tricked etc. Her daughter Georgia (Allegra Fulton) comes to visit to commiserate about her son Jake. Georgia is estranged from Mrs. Nurmi because of past behaviour both to her mother and her son. Mrs. Nurmi can’t forgive her. Georgia is an artist. She is beautifully dressed, as if she’s trying to impress her mother. Allegra Fulton as Georgia is dramatic, emotional guild-ridden, and defensive about her past behaviour. Trying to get her mother to see her point of view is impossible.

This too conjures Queen Maeve and her impressive sword to wreak vengeance on those who have disappointed her. Mrs Nurmi lives a life of solitude because she has chased everybody away, except Siobhan (Caroline Gillis), the Personal Service Worker. As Siobhan, Caroline Gillis offers Mrs. Nurmi kindness mixed with firmness. While Mrs. Nurmi is obstreperous and doesn’t want to wash or clean up, Siobhan firmly but kindly convinces her this is good for her and finally Mrs. Nurmi agrees.

The synopsis of Judith Thompson’s play (in the programme) suggests that the play asks if forgiveness is impossible; will we know when we need to make amends? Is it ever too late to find true empowerment? There are no pat answers in Judith Thompson’s play. Mrs. Nurmi is a tough old woman who never gives an inch with her two relatives. And they have their own issues. Jake is an addict who we know little about except that he has issues with his divorced parents and perhaps that’s a reason he took drugs. Gloria, again a wonderfully regretful performance as played by Allegra Fulton, is guilt ridden by her behavior towards her son and is full of remorse about what happened to him. Mrs. Nurmi doesn’t seem to have any regret about her behaviour. If she feels she was a bad mother, she never says it to the person who needed to hear it—her daughter. If she feels regret, remorse or guilt for her behaviour to anyone, she doesn’t tell them directly—just to the air in her solitary room. Does that count? I don’t think so. This is not a neat ending. But it’s a true ending.  

Comment. Queen Maeve is a bristling play by Judith Thompson, one of our leading playwrights. It has at its center Clare Coulter as Mrs. Nurmi, alias Queen Maeve. Two perfect reasons to take a trip to Stratford to see Here for Now Theatre’s production of this bracing production.

Here for Now Theatre presents:

Opened: Sept. 9, 2023

Closes: Sept. 23, 2023.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission).

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