In the Wake of Wettlaufer at The Blyth Festival – A Review

Between 2007 and 2016, Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a registered nurse in Ontario, murdered eight elderly patients under her care and attempted to kill six others. Her weapon was lethal doses of insulin. Astonishingly enough, her crimes were never detected by the institutions and agencies for which she worked. It was only when she entered a drug rehabilitation program and confessed that they came to light. The case sent shock waves through the province and resulted in a prolonged inquiry that produced damning evidence of a criminally dysfunctional health care system. Wettlaufer is currently serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for twenty-five years. Ontario is still dealing with the repercussions.

The Blyth Festival has a history of creating dramatic works that address headline grabbing events in the province. The Pigeon King (2017), for example, was based on a $70 million ponzi scheme involving breeding phony “racing” pigeons. In the Wake of Wettlaufer continues the tradition. But whereas The Pigeon King told the story of how Arlan Galbraith bilked hundreds of farmers, Wettlaufer takes a different tack, one that is devastatingly effective.

Co-authors Gil Garratt and Kelly McIntosh focus not on the criminal and her modus operandi but on the human toll the scandal takes on a single fictional family of four siblings, three daughters and a son, dealing with the dementia of their father and his eventual placement in a long-term care facility. Wettlaufer isn’t even mentioned until almost an hour into the play, when their father is dead and buried. Like everyone else affected by the revelation of Wettlaufer’s confession the siblings learn of the case, not from the nursing home, not from the health authorities, but from the evening news.

The family struggles through settling their father’s estate, which strains their relationships to the breaking point, as details of the failures of the long-term care industry are revealed. The play uses actual recordings from news reports, statements by the Justice of the Court of Appeal who conducted the Public Inquiry, and even the testimony of a survivor of one of Wettlaufer’s attempted murders. It’s powerful stuff.

The siblings in the cast, Caroline Gillis, Nathan Howe, Rachel Jones, and Jane Spidell, are uniformly excellent. I would single out Ms. Spidell only because she was a late addition to the company. Robert King offers a moving and scarily accurate portrait of a man descending into the hell of dementia. Garratt has directed them well on the minimalist set which he also designed. Rebecca Picherack’s lighting does a nice job of easing the transitions between scenes.

By focusing on a single family, Garratt and McIntosh avoid the sensationalism and righteous anger that the topic might suggest or even seem to demand. The Public Inquiry ended with a result guaranteed to please no one who had been affected. No individuals were cited for censure, let alone punishment; rather the broken system was held responsible and recommendations for corrective action laid down. For many of the families whose loved ones were directly affected or who were in long-term care there seemed no sense of closure.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer attempts to provide some semblance of closure and comfort to the Ontario community Blyth serves — and it’s safe to say that virtually everyone who will see this play at Blyth has been affected to a greater or lesser degree by the tragedy. The play ends with a messenger from a higher realm bearing a message of hope and reconciliation. The ancient Greeks used to do this sort of thing and it is from them that we get the word for what Garratt and McIntosh have given us — catharsis.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer plays through September 6, 2019 in repertory with other productions.

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
blythfestival.com

The Team on the Hill at The Blyth Festival – A Review

When it comes to life on the farm, Dan Needles knows whereof he speaks. Needles, the scion of Canadian theatre royalty and something of a national treasure, is best known as the creator of Wingfield Farm, a series of wryly humorous tales of rural life in Ontario. They started as newspaper pieces and evolved into seven one-man shows that have become something of a sinecure for Stratford Festival veteran Rod Beattie. They are all on DVD and well worth seeking out.

Needles has also written a number of actual plays and the Blyth Festival is reviving his 2013 The Team on the Hill in a spirited production under the steady direction of Severn Thompson, Blyth’s Associate Artistic Director. If the audience reaction at the last preview, which I saw, is any indication it will be a major hit — and deservedly so.

The Ransier family is at a crossroads. The farm, which has a magnificent view of Lake Huron, has come through a bruising period of debt and near disaster thanks to some poor decisions by grandpa Austin, whose love of farming often outstripped his business sense. His son Ray had fled the farm to work on the ships plying the Great Lakes, but he came home to rescue his father from ruin. His many years of hard work have paid off — barely — but the strain has taken its toll. He is angry and bitter and sorely tempted to sell the place to a developer who wants to turn it into a golf course.

As the play begins, son Larry, fresh out of Ag school, returns with his girlfriend Leanne. He loves farming as much as his grandfather and wants to come back and set the farm to rights with his newfound knowledge of the benefits of soy bean cultivation (the play is set in 1970). Grandpa, meanwhile, has started down the slippery slope of dementia and spends his time on the porch seeing things that aren’t there.

This might sound like the kind of scenario that John Steinbeck would turn into an operatic spectacle of despair. Needles doesn’t turn away from the very real pressures his characters face, but he unfailingly finds humour in their travails and reveals the deep and abiding love that ties the family together even when they are having screaming fights and breaking things in their fury. The result is a heartfelt and heartwarming comedy that provides plenty of laughs and, yes, a tear or two.

In Austin, the family patriarch, Needles has created the kind of rich comic character who, like Falstaff in the Elizabethan era, leaves audiences wanting more of his company. He is the heart and soul of the play and Layne Coleman gives him the kind of bravura performance that for once makes the standing ovation at the curtain call perfectly appropriate.

Coleman’s performance alone would warrant a trip to Blyth, but Thompson has surrounded him with lovely performances by Julie Tamiko Manning as Marion, Ray’s loving, long-suffering wife, Tony Munch as Ray, and Kurtis Leon Baker as Larry. Lucy Meanwell, as the girlfriend, has little to do but look adorable and she pulls that off nicely.

Kelly Wolf has provided a clever set with a revolving farmhouse, Noah Feaver has lit it sensitively, and sound designer Heidi Chan has provided unobtrusive music to fit the period.

Then again, as someone once said, the play’s the thing, and Needles has created a loving portrait of the world of Ontario farming and the special breed of people who inhabit it. It was clear to me, who wouldn’t know a soy bean if I fell over it, that the audience had a deep connection with the world on stage. Indeed, The Team on the Hill represents the epitome of Blyth’s mandate, to produce new Canadian work on rural themes and in a rural setting. Once again I find myself urging my fellow Americans to come north to enjoy the kind of terrific theatre that will probably never be seen south of the Poutine Curtain.

The Team on the Hill plays through September 5, 2019 in repertory with other productions.

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
blyth festival.com

Jumbo At The Blyth Festival – A Review

Few people associate P. T. Barnum with southern Ontario. Yet one of the most traumatic events of his storied career occurred in St Thomas, a city not far from the shores of Lake Erie. There, in 1885, during a Canadian tour, his circus’s prize African elephant, Jumbo, was killed by an unscheduled freight train as he was being led to the boxcar in which he traveled. The Blyth Festival is now telling the tale of Jumbo’s death and its immediate aftermath in an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful play by Sean Dixon titled, appropriately enough, Jumbo.

The play is an uncomfortable mixture of styles and moods. The first act introduces us to the members of Barnum’s traveling circus, all actual historical figures, and to the history of Jumbo, purchased from the London zoo when he was quite young and no one knew how large he would eventually become. Dixon uses short, fragmented scenes to give us a sense of the razzle-dazzle of the circus and the colorful characters who inhabit that world. This is an approach that other Blyth productions have used quite effectively. Unfortunately, few in the cast possess the requisite circus skills to make any of this truly compelling. Only the Spanish acrobat, Juan Caicedo (Mark Segal), who does a Cirque-du-Soleil-like aerial turn in the tight space between stage and audience, impresses.

Director Gil Garratt hasn’t helped matters by using placards set on easels at the sides of the stage to indicate the geographical location of the many scenes. It adds an old-fashioned, period flavor to the proceedings, but having an actor change the signs, first one, then the other, slows the pace to a molasses-like crawl. Then, too, there are gaps between short scenes you could drive the proverbial truck through. A little tightening would go a long way.

Of course, the center of Act One is Jumbo and both playwright and performers do a good job of making him a real presence and a believable character. The best parts of the show are scenes in which we come to appreciate the bond between beast and keeper and the almost loving relationship that grows between Jumbo and the bearded lady of the circus (Lucy Meanwell).

Act One ends with Jumbo’s fatal accident which Garratt has staged very effectively. Deprived of Jumbo’s charismatic presence, Act Two suffers as it struggles to find the right tone, lurching from straight drama, to commedia dell’arte comedy, to a sort of expressive dance, and back to straight drama. When the play shambled to a close, few in the audience seemed to be aware that it had, in fact, ended.

There are some good performances. The aforementioned Mark Segal as the aerialist Caicedo is physically compelling, although his Spanish accent was often impenetrable; he also is effective in Act Two as a local butcher ready to hack Jumbo to pieces. Tony Munch is touching as Jumbo’s devoted keeper and Michael McManus is a standout as “The Armless Wonder.” Peter Bailey gives an animated and ingratiating performance as an African-American veteran of the war between the states, although his function in the play was something of a mystery to me.

The indisputable star, however, is Jumbo, or rather the enormous and ingenious life-sized puppet Gemma James-Smith has created to represent him. Almost literally a thing of rags and patches, her creation is remarkably life-like and believable thanks to some exquisite puppetry. Kurtis Leon Baker, who also plays other roles, does a masterful job of manipulating the large head and ears, while Tony Munch unobtrusively brings Jumbo’s trunk to life. When Jumbo turns his sad, soulful eyes to the audience he almost seems to be saying, “Why can’t I be in a better play?”

[Photo: The cast of Jumbo by Terry Manzo, © 2019 courtesy of The Blyth Festival.]

Jumbo plays through August 10, 2019

The Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
https://blythfestival.com/