Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre


Sticks and Stones at the Blyth Festival

The Blyth Festival’s ambitious plan to stage all three installments of James Reaney’s so-called Donnelly Trilogy is off to an impressive start with Sticks and Stones. It is artfully abridged, adapted, and directed by artistic director Gil Garratt, and presented at the magical outdoor Harvest Stage.

James Reaney  (1926-2008) was a major Canadian playwright, little known in the United States. He was already well established when he wrote the Donnelly Trilogy – he had seen his work produced at the august Stratford Festival after all.

The plays of the Donnelly Trilogy (Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs) premiered over several years in the 1970s. They were immediately recognized as a landmark event in Canadian theatrical history, largely I suspect because Reaney’s stagecraft and dramaturgy were so novel.

Reaney’s work “earned him a reputation as an erudite poet at once deriving structures from metaphor, mythology and a cosmopolitan literary tradition while deeply rooted in a regional sense of place,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

That seems to be true of the Donnelly plays as well. Anyone picking up the published text of the plays may well find themselves wondering how on earth they might have been staged originally. My guess is that the printed text represents an attempt to give an impression of how the material came across on stage rather than being a copy of the script handed out at the first rehearsal.

Reaney sought in his plays to “rouse the faculties” and he did this in part by paying close attention to what he called the “sonic environment,” working in close collaboration with the cast. So the plays are replete with music, foot stomping, sound effects generated by the cast, overlapping call and response, and choral moments in which text is recited by several voices at once.

His devotion to a sense of place is illustrated by the fact that when the plays toured nationally the company brought along the ladders and barrels used in the original production. They even brought along stones collected from the locations depicted in the plays.

James Donnelly and his wife Johanna, from Tipperary in Ireland, settled in the area of present day Lucan in the 1840s. Today, Lucan is about a half hour’s drive from Stratford; then it was quite remote. The area was still in the early stages of being transformed from thick forests to the lush farmland seen today. Government surveyors were busy at work imposing a rigid system of “lines” or roads that formed rectangles on the land regardless of natural features like streams.

It was common practice in those days for dirt poor immigrants like the Donnellys to “squat” on land that nominally belonged to the government hoping that by improving the land they could earn so-called “squatters’ rights.”

The Donnellys settled on what became known as the Roman Line because of the large number of Irish Catholics who settled there. (Interestingly, the Roman Line remains largely unpaved to this day.) There they raised a brood of seven sons and a daughter. They prospered, after a fashion. They also suffered.

The Donnelly family needs no introduction to most Canadians, certainly not to those from southwestern Ontario, where they are famous, even infamous. Indeed, they are memorialized in a quite good brand of craft beers. American visitors who stumble across references to them may come to the conclusion that they were a villainous clan – they are called “The Black Donnellys” after all, and they sure look sinister on those beer cans.

Sticks and Stones sketches in the broad outlines of the Donnelly story. In Reaney’s telling, the Donnelly family emerges as more sinned against than sinning.

Sure, the patriarch James Donnelly and some of his sons were not exactly choir boys, but these were rough and tumble times. It was a milieu replete with corrupt politicians and heartless sharpsters who robbed hardworking and often illiterate immigrants not with a gun but a pen. The broad outlines of the world of the Donnelly saga will look familiar to anyone who has seen movies or read novels about the settling of the North American “frontier.”

This was all at the expense of the indigenous population, of course, but that’s a tale for another day.

Over time and for a variety of reasons that involved land disputes, corrupt officialdom, a barroom brawl ending in manslaughter, political animosities with roots in the “auld country,” and religious bigotry the Donnellys acquired an impressively long list of enemies.

Eventually the simmering hatreds culminated in a vigilante mob storming the Donnelly house, beating the inhabitants to death, and then burning the house to the ground. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

No spoiler alert is needed here since a Canadian audience will be quite familiar with the story before they arrive at the theatre. Sorry if I spoiled it for you Yanks.

Garratt had the Reaney family’s blessing in abridging and adapting the plays. He has done an excellent job of rendering the text crystal clear, even as the action ricochets forward and backward in time. At the same time, he retains the poetic aspects of Reaney’s sonic environment and the Brechtian touches which frequently break the fourth wall.

Thanks to a strong cast the story is receiving a stirring retelling. At its heart are James (Randy Hughson) and Johanna Donnelly (Rachel Jones). Hughson, who was such a terrific Scrooge in Garratt’s homespun retelling of Dickens’ Christmas Carol in 2019, turns in yet another powerful performance.

The star of this installment, however, is Rachel Jones who contributes a solid portrait of the archetypal, steel-spined frontier wife. She can cow villains into submission with the sheer force of her personality. She is a paragon of spousal devotion when she crusades to have her husband’s death sentence commuted. And she is a wise and loving mother to her often fractious sons.

The Donnelly sons and all the various friends and foes they confront are portrayed by an exceptional ensemble – Geoffrey Armour, Paul Dunn, Cameron Laurie, Steven McCarthy, James Dallas Smith, and Mark Uhre. They can all switch from menacing bad guys to comic characters with aplomb.

Many of them will be familiar to Blyth regulars. Paul Dunn scored in multiple roles in his husband Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast in 2019. James Dallas Smith starred in Cottagers and Indians in 2022. Cameron Laurie was quite delightful as the hapless actor sent to learn about farming in The Drawer Boy, also in 2022.

Stephen McCarthy is not only quite affecting as the “cripple” Will Donnelly but he also plays a mean fiddle. And I remember Mark Uhre fondly as the rubber-limbed Benny Southstreet in the Stratford Festival’s 2017 production of Guys and Dolls. Here he makes a truly slimy villain of John Cassleigh, among other more pleasant roles.

On the distaff side, Hallie Seline makes a splendid Jenny Donnelly and Masae Day makes her Blyth debut in multiple roles.

Sticks and Stones is being presented on the Harvest Stage at the rear of the Blyth campground. The theatre has been expanded and improved upon recently, with the addition of quite comfortable permanent seating.

Beth Kates has created a splendid, collage-like, mostly wooden set on the Harvest Stage’s expansive multi-level playing area. It reminded me of the early environmental stage sets of multi-Tony-winning designer Eugene Lee. I’m assuming the set will also serve the other plays in the trilogy.

Kates has also provided clever lighting, no simple task in an outdoor production presented at sunset. Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston’s period costumes struck me as just right.

For his part, Garratt makes excellent use of the stage’s many playing areas and levels. In a nice touch, he has the senior Donnellys arrive in a stage coach as the play begins. (Look to your left.)

The three plays of the Donnelly Trilogy are being opened gradually. The St. Nicholas Hotel begins performances on July 13, 2023, and Handcuffs on August 1, 2023. Starting August 4, the plays will be presented in order on consecutive nights through September 3, 2023. In the event of inclement weather, the show will move into the Festival’s indoor space at Memorial Hall on Queen Street.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Blyth Festival website.

Footnote: I’d like to give a shout out to whomever is responsible for seeing that the seat numbers are so clearly and prominently displayed. It’s a refreshing change from the practice at many theatres of placing almost invisible numbers on the underside of seats, forcing you to bend over in dim light, often sticking your butt in the face of some hapless fellow theatergoer, as you attempt to find your seat.

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