john dartt, ava peill & nick leblanc photo by ryan taplin
Halifax Theatre For Young People brings us a Christmas story from Vancouver this year with its production of Hiro Kanagawa’s The Patron Saint of Stanley Park. It is a poignant and sweet story about finding the spirit of the season amid a heavy sense of loss and a sense of magic and possibility that extends beyond the idea of Santa Claus.
Kanagawa’s play is similar in style and theme to the Christmas movies that are often found on the Hallmark Channel, in which an unexpected, curmudgeonly older misfit in town turns out to have much in common with the jolly fellow in the red suit when he encounters children in dire need of Christmas cheer. Fourteen year old Jennifer and ten year old Josh are marking at the solemn first anniversary of the day their father disappeared in an airplane accident this Christmas Eve. Jennifer is bitter and explosively angry. Josh is holding on to the belief that their father, Kevin, is just lost, like Big Foot, or in some alternate reality or dimension, and that he will find his way home some day. Their mother, Marcia, is at her wits end trying to hold the family together and to allow the children a little joy for the holidays. When Jennifer decides to take Josh to Stanley Park, the last place they saw their father alive, in the middle of a rare Vancouver blizzard to pay tribute to their father they end up happening upon the underground bunker of a mysterious drifter named Skookum Pete.
Skookum Pete is Kanagawa’s biggest asset in this play. He is one part vagabond living in the very real world of Stanley Park, he is one part mystical Patron Saint of the Park and keeper of its history and its traditions working as signalman. He also is rumoured to leave presents on children’s doorsteps, and has a sort of magical music workshop of sorts, which makes him one part Santa Claus. This layering of the real world with the world of magic suggests beautifully that we all have the potential in ourselves to capture the essence of Christmas and to embody aspects of the myths that we hold dear to us.
In this production Skookum Pete is played with nuance, charm and wit by John Dartt who brings much of the heart to the play, as well as much of the silliness that makes this story unique. It is really an opportunity for Dartt to shine in a role that seems custom-tailored to him. Samantha Wilson plays Marcia with the exasperated warmth of a mother who is trying to strike a balance between addressing her children’s behavioural challenges, while wrapping them in empathy and comfort. Wilson captures a great sense of Marcia’s hesitance, especially when dealing with the volcanic Jennifer, which makes it plain that, although she is doing her best with what she has, she is unsure how to move forward without her husband and how to even attempt to heal the wounds his loss has left behind. Dave Rossetti plays Dad, Kevin, in Flashback, and gives us a strong sense of the jovial and loving relationships he had with his children. Ava Peill and Nick LeBlanc play Jennifer and Josh respectively and they bring an authentic youthfulness to the production, which is refreshing and serves the story nicely. LeBlanc is buoyant as Encyclopaedic Josh who has a beautiful sense of wonder, kindness and an openness to the endless possibilities of the Universe. Kanazawa gives Peill less to work with in Jennifer, who is a more cliched Angry Teenage Girl With Attitude which results in a bit too much empty yelling, but I like the protectiveness that Peill exhibits with Josh and her fierce determination to honour her fallen father.
Director Tessa Mendel makes great use of the Alderney Landing Space, especially in using heights to represent the Stanley Park bridge and how tall the massive trees are there. She also manages to create a great sense of intimacy in the home scenes, although a few times the action between Peill and LeBlanc is a bit too small and focused inward in a way that would have worked better on film than in a large theatre space. Kanagawa’s story is compelling and at times quite poignant, although I did find myself wondering why Kevin, who clearly is a devoted father, waited an entire year to find a way to connect to his devastated family and that he seemed a little too unfazed by their profound grief once he found his way to them. Also Jennifer, who resists the idea of ever seeing her father again to the point of lashing out at her brother for even suggesting it may be possible, suddenly immediately accepts his presence in the park as though she had been expecting him, which I also found a little too convenient. Yet, ultimately, I felt satisfied by the play’s conclusion and warmed by its message.
I would recommend The Patron Saint of Stanley Park as a Family Holiday Play, and one that certainly will appeal to adults and older children (I would suggest 10 years old and up). It is nice to see a Canadian Christmas Story being told and Skookum Pete has the potential to become one of our very own fantastical Christmas figures who could endure beyond this one play and inspire a whole series of tales about his adventures in and around Stanley Park. If he does, I hope he is always played by John Dartt.
Halifax Theatre For Young People’s The Patron Saint of Stanley Park plays at the Alderney Landing Theatre (2 Ochterloney Street, Dartmouth) at following times:
December 20 and 21 at 7:00pm and December 21 & 22 at 2:00pm.