Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the donnelly trilogy

The St. Nicholas Hotel At The Blyth Festival

The saga of southwest Ontario’s ill-fated Donnelly clan continues in The St. Nicholas Hotel, the second installment of The Donnelly’s: A Trilogy at the Blyth Festival. The others in the series are Sticks and Stones and Handcuffs.

After the broad overview of the legend of the Donnellys provided by Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel adopts a more chronological approach as it zeros in on the period of the 1870s when the sons of James and Johanna entered the cutthroat world of the stage coach business.

As with Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel has been adapted (and abridged) from the original plays of famed Canadian playwright James Reaney by Blyth artistic director Gil Garratt, who also directs.

Garratt and his cast bring a dazzlingly theatrical flair to the tale told by The St. Nicholas Hotel. They use many of the techniques of Story Theatre, which enjoyed something of a vogue in the late sixties and seventies. They also continue to pay homage to Reaney’s “sonic environment.” Actors assume multiple roles, including horses and the jockeys who ride them. They stage thrilling horse races and create stage coaches out of trunks and chairs. They play multiple musical instruments, sing beautifully, and stomp, dance, and brawl with gusto.

Rather than repeat myself, I would encourage the curious to read my review of Sticks and Stones, in which I discuss the history of Reaney’s trilogy, his dramaturgical approach, and the broad outlines of the Donnelly legend. (The actual history of the Donnelly tragedy remains somewhat murky thanks not only to the passage of time but also to the decades-long cult of silence adopted by the descendants of the Donnelly’s enemies. An entire counter-narrative developed to shift the blame from the murderers to the victims; it proved remarkably successful. See the Footnote, below)

The central action of The St. Nicholas Hotel revolves around the Donnelly sons’ successful entry into the stage coach business, which was remarkably robust in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it seems that it was far easier to get about southwestern Ontario on public transit then than it is today!

The competition was fierce, with multiple lines fighting over passengers and routes. The Donnellys played the game lustily and gained implacable enemies in the process. Eventually, they were forced out. A more charitable view would be that they decided to seek less violent ways of making a living.

The St. Nicholas Hotel also begins to darken the narrative as anti-Donnelly sentiment grows more virulent. The play ends on a somber note that presages the horror that is to follow.

The same ten-member cast appears in all of the three plays of the trilogy. In The St. Nicholas Hotel, however, they branch out a bit.

Randy Hughson, while continuing to play James Donnelly, plays a variety of other roles, including Dr. Maguire, a Protestant minister with the great line “The Bible is a great help in getting me rid of people I don’t like.” His depiction of Hugh McKinnon, the private detective hired by the anti-Donnelly faction to gin up a case against the family, is a comic gem and a highlight of the show.

Rachel Jones reappears as Johannah Donnelly, although less prominently. But she scores in a wide variety of smaller roles, including that of a sprightly filly.

Other members of this first-rate ensemble become especially noteworthy in The St. Nicholas Hotel. Masae Day, in a stand-out performance, is touching as Maggie Thompson, Will Donnelly’s intended bride who gets locked in a nunnery for falling in love with the wrong man. Geoffrey Armour turns in two powerful performances as the alcoholic James Donnelly, Jr., and the villainous James Carroll, one of the prime architects of the Donnelly’s doom.

Paul Dunn is a delight as both the head of a rival stage line and the effete Father Connolly. He also does yeoman service as a series of toll gate collectors.

Steven McCarthy and Mark Uhre remain prominent throughout The St. Nicholas Hotel as Will and Mike Donnelly respectively. McCarthy, who has the good fortune to look like he has just stepped out of a daguerrotype from the 1870s, is a compelling Will. Uhre, who incidentally is an accomplished visual artist in addition to being a terrific singer, makes for a dashing Mike.

Inclement weather forced the opening night of The St. Nicholas Hotel to relocate to Memorial Hall from the outdoor Harvest Stage. While I missed the special magic that setting contributes to anything presented there, the dramatic impact of the play seemed to suffer not a whit from the change in venue.

Garratt and company have scored again and I look forward to Handcuffs, the final play in the trilogy.

Footnote: Reaney and Garratt take some understandable artistic liberties with the known history of the story. If you are curious to know more about the Donnellys, as I was, I can recommend Orlo Miller’s book “The Donnellys Must Die.”

Miller’s book is considered by many the most “authoritative” book on the subject. Since the victors write the history, previous books on the episode have painted the Donnellys as utter villains – the “Black” Donnellys. Miller is honest enough to acknowledge that the true history, in all its unpleasant details, will probably never be known.

Miller has mined the surprising wealth of contemporary documentation available from surviving diaries and multiple newspapers (another public good that has diminished radically in our time). Much of it is mutually contradictory. Even so, he sifts the evidence to present as accurate a picture as he could manage.

Unfortunately, “The Donnellys Must Die” is out of print. You can find it at a moderate cost at the used book site AbeBooks. For somewhat more you can arrange for a print-on-demand copy through Fanfare Books in Stratford, (519-273-1010).

If you travel to Lucan, Ontario, you can visit the Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum, open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 to 4, from Mother’s Day weekend to Labour Day. Their displays have some lacunae and some distortions, but the recreation of the Donnelly cabin behind the museum makes a visit worthwhile.

The St. Nicholas Hotel continues at the Blyth Festival through September 2, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Blyth Festival website.

(image: The Donnelly family grave at St. Patrick’s church on the Roman Line.)

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