Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the real mccoy

The Real McCoy At The Blyth Festival

The Blyth Festival is rounding out its 49th season with a smashing revival of Andrew Moodie’s 2006 play, The Real McCoy. A flawless cast and a sprightly script add up to an altogether marvelous show that is alternately hilariously funny and heartbreakingly sad.

Elijah McCoy was the son of runaway slaves who settled in Colchester, Ontario, in the 1830s. A precocious child, he grew up to become a skilled engineer and the inventor of a “lubricating cup” that vastly improved the efficiency of steam locomotives in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He is frequently cited as the inspiration for a phrase, still common today, that means the genuine article.

Whether Elijah was indeed the source of the phrase “the real McCoy” is disputed. Moodie doesn’t much care. He has other fish to fry. In his Playwright’s Notes he says, “The phrase intimates that we often try to peel away all that is transitory and equivocal in our lives to get to the thing itself. It’s about being authentic.”

So don’t come to The Real McCoy expecting historical authenticity. The play is more a riff on history than history itself.

Moodie uses the story of McCoy’s life to explore, by extension, the struggle of the descendants of enslaved people in the New World to be recognized for their own worth. Moodie’s McCoy strives to make sense of a chaotic universe, a struggle between two laws of thermodynamics – entropy and power.

He replaces belief in a loving God who visits such injustice on His children with faith in the ability of science to create a better, more just world.

This may sound like heavy going, but in Moodie’s hands the parable represented by his fictionalized story of “the real McCoy’s” life is a ripping yarn that had me laughing one moment and wiping away a tear a few beats later.

I won’t try to summarize the story. I hope you will venture to Blyth to hear it for yourself. Suffice it to say The Real McCoy follows an arc with which we are all familiar – a rags to riches story filled with struggle and triumph, joy and sadness. McCoy strives mightily but in the end entropy wins, as it does for us all.

Moodie has directed The Real McCoy and he proves to be a superb elucidator of his own work. He has staged the play simply with a deep theatrical imagination on a simple raked wooden stage by Steve Lucas, who also designed the very effective lighting and (I assume) the projections that occasionally fill the rear wall.

The action flows seamlessly through many short scenes as Elijah travels from Canada to Edinburgh, Scotland, to Ypsilanti, Michigan, to Detroit.

The detailed period costumes by Tamara Marie Kucheran, among the best I have ever seen at Blyth, are a major contribution to the success of a story that spans a lifetime and involves dozens of characters. Even the smallest roles seem to have been costumed with the care usually reserved for leads.

The cast is flawless, starting with Peter N. Bailey as McCoy. He rarely leaves the stage and cycles through a multitude of emotions. It’s a riveting performance.

The other six actors in The Real McCoy play multiple roles, and every one of them is a polished gem of fine acting.

Xuan Fraser is deeply affecting as Elijah’s loving father who estranges himself from his son when he sees him straying from faith in an all-powerful God. Matthew G Brown is equally compelling as the young Elijah and Don Bogie, a raffish figure who gets Elijah a job in the locomotive industry and resists Elijah’s exhortations to improve himself.

Alicia Richardson and Nawa Nicolę Simon play all the women in the play, and there are a lot of them! I was especially taken by Simon’s rendition of Gertrude, the no nonsense housekeeper to McCoy and his second wife – a brilliant piece of comic acting. For her part, Richardson was sheer delight as the second Mrs. McCoy. They meet cute and court cuter.

Richard Alan Campbell and Michael Pollard are an absolute hoot as a kaleidoscopic assortment of white people in McCoy’s life. Some are ignorant, some are bigoted, some are ignorant and bigoted, and all are brought to robust often hilarious life. I especially enjoyed Pollard as Mr. Rankine, the acerbic Scotsman who trained McCoy in Edinburgh and recognized his genius.

There hasn’t been a clunker in Blyth’s entire 2023 season and I’m not sure whether The Real McCoy is the best of the bunch or if it’s just that it’s the one I saw most recently.

In any event, I urge you to see it before it ends its all-too-brief run.

The Real McCoy plays at the Blyth Festival through September 9, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Blyth Festival website.

Footnote: The Blyth Festival Art Gallery is hosting, through September 29, a powerful installation by local artist Kelly Stevenson. It is well worth spending some time taking it in. If you can’t make it to Blyth, you can visit the artist’s online shop.

(image The Blyth Festival; photo by Terry Manzo)

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