Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

saving graceland

Saving Graceland At The Blyth Festival

Artistic director Gil Garratt’s new play, Saving Graceland, is a quiet triumph for the Blyth Festival, a perfect example what Blyth does best – tell stories about real people that have not just relevance but resonance with its audience.

On the surface, Saving Graceland is a downbeat tale of Gord (J.D. Nicholsen) and Orillia (Caroline Gillis) Morrison, a retired Huron County couple couple who should be jetting off to Hawaii for their 42nd wedding anniversary. But as they are about to leave for the airport in the pre-dawn hours their eight-year-old granddaughter Dylan (an enchanting Goldie Garratt) arrives on their doorstep, alone, her drug ravaged mother nowhere to be found.

So begins a sad tale of the effects of the drug epidemic on ordinary households. Garratt tells the story by interweaving scenes of the havoc wrought in Gord and Orillia’s lives when in their alleged golden years they must become Dylan’s parents with monologues by the major figures in the drama. Eventually we hear from their daughter Lauren (Amy Keating) and her childhood friend Ben (Cameron Laurie) who extends a helping hand that goes ungrasped.

Garratt brings these people to life beautifully with some of the most insightful writing of his playwrighting career. (I have also seen his Pigeon King and In The Wake of Wettlaufer, co-written with Kelly McIntosh.)

There is an almost documentary feel to Saving Graceland that lends the proceedings remarkable poignancy. In a programme note, Garratt tells us that he personally knew a family who went through this trauma and it is a safe bet that many people in Blyth’s tight-knit local audience know someone too. Theatrical artifice falls away and you begin to feel that you are listening to and sharing the pain of neighbors in your own small town.

If that was all, Saving Graceland might rank as one of many dramas whose heart is in the right place, but that fall short of any sort of universality.

Garratt avoids that trap by invoking The King – Elvis Presley that is.

You see Gord has been a devotee, one might even say a worshipper, of Elvis since he was 15. Although she likes Elvis, Orillia is probably less of a fan of Elvis than she is of Gord and she has encouraged his dream of one day participating as a “tribute artist” in the annual Elvis Festival, held in Collingwood on the shores of Georgian Bay, a two hour drive to the north.

That’s not a made-up thing, as my American readers might think, but an actual festival that ran from 1995 to 2019, when declining attendance spelled its demise. The Collingwood Elvis Festival hangs over Saving Graceland as a potent symbol of loss.

Gord’s hopes keep getting dashed throughout Saving Graceland. First the anniversary trip and then, on the day he receives a recreation of Elvis’ famous peacock suit (one of Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston’s terrific costumes), the police drop by with Lauren, who is en route to yet another reckoning with the law.

In the end Gord and Orillia assume full custody of Dylan and the roles of parents once again, which produces its own set of strains on their relationship. Garratt sugar coats none of this, but he gives us two strong people, deeply in love, who are determined to carry on.

Dylan seems to be flourishing in her new situation and then Gord’s shot at a spot in the Festival, seemingly lost but for a last-minute reprieve, comes to pass and Gord and Orillia’s relationship with Dylan takes a giant leap forward.

I don’t want to give it away but Elvis and the glamour and glitz that he continues to radiate long after his death comes to represent a kind of transcendence we all seek in our lives but that life seldom offers.

But it’s on offer in Saving Graceland and ends a story that should be unbearably sad on a note of great hope. I strongly suggest you make the drive to Blyth to take it in.

The director, James MacDonald’s hand is almost invisible, but is most assuredly there in the finely calibrated performances of his cast. J.D. Nicholsen and Caroline Gillis are both sublime. This is one of those rare depictions of a long-term, loving marriage that actually works. And Nicholsen’s Elvis tribute (not an impersonation, as Gord insists) is terrific.

Cameron Laurie is solid as a rock as Ben, the salt of the earth Afghanistan veteran who grew up up with Lauren. For her part, Amy Keating as Lauren is heartbreaking in Garratt’s unsparing portrait of a soul lost to the ravages of drugs.

Finally, Goldie Garratt, who I suspect may have had an inside track on landing the part, makes a smashing debut as Dylan. This is a kid who knows how to land a laugh – and she even drew exit applause! Her fate is sealed.

Solid support, too, from set and lighting designer Beth Kates and sound designer Troy Slocum.

Saving Graceland continues at the Blyth Festival, indoors at Memorial Hall, through August 3, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Blyth Festival website.

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