Anne Chislett's award-winning Quiet in the Land opened the Blyth Festival's 23rd season this past weekend, directed with intelligence and sensitivity by Shaw Festival veteran Paul Lampert. The play's quietly simple opening in plainsong, and rumours of a less than spark-filled opening night performance were quickly forgotten as the production exploded into full-flame. The result is a searing interpretation of Chislett's play.
As current festival Artistic Director Janet Amos passes the AD torch to Anne Chislett, she honours her with this inspired choice. In a happy coincidence (Amos selected the play before the Board of Directors chose Amos' successor) Chislett takes over her duties from Amos in November. Quiet in the Land premiered at the Blyth Festival in 1981, won the Chalmers Award in 1982 and the Governor General's Award for Drama in 1983 and, 16 years later, it's still being produced and studied by students in college and university, and is as freshly relevant as the day it was written.
Essentially a morality play, Quiet is a finely drawn portrait of an old-order Amish community in Southwestern Ontario held together and set apart by its strict beliefs, German ancestry and pacifism. The devastation of World War I threatens to split the community when widower Christy Bauman (Road to Avonlea's David Fox), a stern elder and son of one of the founding bishops of the community, is challenged by his own rebellious son, Yock. When a non-Amish friend is wounded at the front, Yock rejects his heritage, his family and the girl he loves to enlist in the army and defend Canada. Infused with warmth and wonderful characters, this play explores the great human dilemma of how to understand the meaning, and demands, of love and Christianity in a world torn by hatred.
Chislett pulls no punches in the story. We emphathize with the pacifist German-Canadian Amish families but still question their loyalty. We feel sympathy for Yock and girl-next-door Kate and their unfulfilled love for each other. We share Yock's frustration with the inflexibility of his father, while we understand Christy's determination to protect his group from the inevitable loss of separateness that will result from association with the "High People." Christians are commanded not to kill; how then can a Christian support, even in a non-military capacity, the concept of war? The play forces us to question ourselves and our beliefs about love and war.
Technically, it is a tightly written piece that moves quickly, establishing characters and events with the sparse assurance of an Amish home. By a clever technique of using strongly accented English on the rare occasions when the characters are speaking English to outsiders, we quickly understand that they are speaking High German among themselves.
Lampert has assembled a extraordinarily talented cast of actors and technicians to forge his luminous interpretation, including two who participated in the original staging of Quiet in 1981. John Ferguson, the original designer, has crafted an ivory Amish grouping, a sparsely ingenious creation that allows bi-familial interplay between two houses that become a church hall (or an army induction office) with a few moves. David Fox leads the cast as crusty Christy, surely one of the best actors ever to tramp the Blyth boards. Another familiar face belongs to Jerry Franken who plays loveable fence-sitter Zepp, father to Kate and a deacon who is thrust into leadership when the community's bishop is deported back to Ohio. This is Franken's 10th season at Blyth and audiences may remember him most recently from Jake's Place and Ballad for a Rum Runner's Daughter. One of the region's foremost technicians, Lesley Wilkinson, has designed the lighting, in delicate primary colours, a gentle but brilliant contrast to the stark set.
Female roles, though subjugated in Amish households, are rich in this production. Sharon Bakker as Hannah plays the role of impish grandmother (Grosmuti) to grumpy perfection, while Sharon Bernbaum's exuberant Kate is a wonderfully endearing mix of chastity and free sprit. Kate's last scene with Yock (brilliantly realised by newcomer Barna Moricz) and her husband-of-convenience Menno (Ari Cohen) is a study in the powerful emotions of unrequited love.
Other supporting cast are Dick Murphy as tipsy neighbour Mr O'Rourke, David Archambault as his wounded son Paddy, and Kirsten Van Ritzen as Lydie, Kate's mother. Two adults and five youths from the local community round out the cast: Anne Elliott, Floyd Herman, John Battye, Scott Bouman, Kendra Fry, Lindsay Gibson and Cappy Onn.
A wonderful introduction to this year's festival, Quiet in the Land is a modern classic you will always cherish. The images and themes presented by this wonderful cast will live long in your memory. For tickets, $20 or less, call 519/523-9804. Soon. Quiet in the Land will be silent after July 25, 1997.
Now here's what You have to say:
"... a powerfully written piece of theatre, a set with straight, clean lines, wonderfully white surfaces and lighting that in certain moments made the horizon stretch into the land beyond. The script offers actors some great opportunities to explore characterization and motivation; although some choices were questionable, all gave food for thought (and, in some cases, debate) for hours. There are moments in this piece that I still haven't forgotten." ...Kate H.
The Melville Boys, by popular Canadian playwright Norm Foster, opened July 30 at the Blyth Festival, expertly directed by Patricia Vanstone. This endearing play premiered at Theatre New Brunswick in 1984 when Blyth's own retiring Janet Amos had just taken over the reins as artistic director there. It was awarded the Los Angeles Critics Drama-Logue Award in 1988. Foster plays, among them Sinners, Wrong For Each Other, The Affections of May (the most produced play in Canada in 1991), The Motor Trade, Opening Night (an unfortunate aberration) and The Long Weekend, have been performed across Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
The 1996/97 theatre season has had world premieres of three new Foster plays: Office Hours, Jupiter in July and The Last Resort. However, Foster says he holds The Melville Boys closest to his heart because there is more of him in this play than in any of his others and, also because, 13 years later, it is still the play he is measured by. This new production captures the essence of Foster's writing: it's funny yet profoundly emotional.
Brothers Owen and Lee Melville arrive at their aunt's cottage for a weekend of fishing and beer. Lee, a quiet, responsible married man, hopes to get Owen, his irrepressibly lively brother, to face some serious and life-changing news about the future with realistic maturity. But before they can get the junk food unpacked, Owen has hailed two beautiful women boating on the lake who burst into their weekend retreat, creating unexpected mayhem, delightful temptations, tears and laughter.
As Lee, Blyth has cast the versatile Eric Coates, who also appears in the popular Barndance Live!. Coates captures the agony of a faithful family man tempted by a woman...and by fate. His is a winning performance that weaves a happy optimism with fatalistic sadness. Rogue brother Owen is played by Ari Cohen, recently of the solemn but brilliant Quiet in the Land. We hardly recognized the Amish farmer Menno Miller, transformed this evening into redneck Owen, three weeks away from his nuptials and determined to sew another strain of oats. Cohen's scenes with Coates were studies in comedy, but when the time came for serious acting, it was there.
The two sisters who wreak havoc on the weekend are played by Sharon Bernbaum and Carolyn Hay. Bernbaum plays gregarious aspiring actress (of TV used car commercials) Loretta in a tour-de-force performance. We've admired Bernbaum since we first saw her as the ailing Southern belle, Shelby, in Theatre Aquarius' Steel Magnolias, then were impressed with her interpretation of the rebel Amish girl in Blyth's Quiet in the Land, and now as the lusty Loretta -- three entirely disparate characters. Her prodigious talents are clearly apparent to local audiences, and will most assuredly propel this actress into wide acclaim. Hay, in her second season at Blyth, is Mary, the quietly repressed sister. Her interpretation of the ex-wife in waiting is right on the money. Together, the gifted quartet are perfectly suited for Foster's uniquely Canadian brand of comedy.
Set and costume designer is D'arcy Poultney, who has created a summer cottage interior, typically under perpetual construction. The lighting design is by Michael Kruse. The Melville Boys excites and saddens the emotions. Get tickets quickly, before it closes August 22. For tickets, call (519) 523-9300.
Stage Door is unable to provide a full review of this production, but here's what You have to say:
"...wonderful ensemble cast. Everyone can act, sing, move or shake something...and to see these actors work together with such resounding commitment is fascinating. Based on stories that were gathered and collected from sources throughout Ontario, a storyline emerged with recurring characters (which is something of a theatrical miracle in itself). There are moments of hilarity and poignancy; some work, some don't. Nonetheless, this is fine ensemble work. The jazz/blues number close to the top of the show is a subtle knockout." ...Kate H.
Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres by direct or devious means, or downright personal opinion. If you don't like what you see, blame us, not the fine folks in the theatres of Southwestern Ontario.