keelin jack, stephanie macdonald & francine deschepper
In Toronto a few years ago I recall having a conversation with a friend of mine from out West about his inability to connect with “doleful” Atlantic Canadian plays. He cited Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge as an example. At that time I had not seen a production of Marion Bridge, only the 2002 film version, which is significantly different from the stage play, but I wouldn’t describe it as being “doleful.” I think I conceded to my friend, a bit ambivalently, that the Atlantic provinces do have a reputation for creating art that reflects a history of hardship and turmoil: poverty, shipwrecks, mining explosions, blizzards and heartache. I saw my first production of Marion Bridge at Valley Summer Theatre in Wolfville, Nova Scotia this past Friday, directed by Linda Moore, and I was immediately reminded what a beautifully poignant, yet also intensely funny play it is. This reminded me of my friend’s words about “doleful Atlantic Canadian plays” and made me wonder how he could have construed something imbued with such humour and hope as something morose. I suspect it may have something to do with the way the director chose to direct the specific production he saw out West.
The play tells the story of three sisters, Agnes, Theresa and Louise, who have gathered at their family home in Cape Breton around the deathbed of their mother. Agnes, an actor, has returned from Toronto and is brimming with anxiety in having to suddenly confront all the things that she has fought so hard to avoid and run away from. Theresa, a nun, is saddled with the responsibility of having to be the divinely good daughter all the time and struggles with the limitations she faces merely from being human. Louise is addicted to soap operas and talk shows and feels alienated from her two older sisters so she usually hides her feelings in a nonchalant shrug. The emphasis in the play is on the catharsis and redemption that comes from facing the ghosts from one’s past and the ways that the sisters are able to strengthen themselves and their bond with one another as they seek forgiveness, understanding and compassion.
MacIvor paints a beautifully nuanced portrait of the relationships between these three sisters and the surrounding dynamics of their hometown. His dialogue is crammed with subtext, but never sounds scripted and he allows each sister to be genuinely funny, but the humour manifests itself differently in each of them, as is the case in life. Each sister has a monologue, where MacIvor takes them to more poetic and thoughtful places, but always within the realm of each one’s distinct personality and vocabulary. There is a specific familiarity in Agnes, Louise and Theresa, something that makes me feel a sense of belonging in their story. Perhaps this is one aspect of the play that doesn’t translate as well to those “from away.”
Keelin Jack is commanding and brisk as “Saint Theresa,” with a great patience for Louise’s “strangeness,” a pragmatic control of her mother’s deteriorating condition and an exasperation for Agnes’ whirling dervish personality and propensity to drink too much. Her monologue, a confession about her wavering faith, is an arrow right to the gut. Stephanie MacDonald is hilarious and utterly endearing as Louise and she is able to express so much in a very few words. Her physicality and vocal intonation work to make Louise come alive in a beautiful three dimensional way. Francine Deschepper seems to effortlessly infuse Agnes with all the complexity and depth of someone struggling to find meaning and focus from within an extremely chaotic life. Agnes swings between euphoria and despair and most of the emotions in between and often the emotion she expresses is only an attempt to conceal her true feelings. Yet, watching Deschepper’s performance Agnes’ subtext is always clearly woven in, with perfect balance as to not be too overt or too vague. Indeed, Agnes truly comes alive as a fascinating multifaceted and complex woman.
Linda Moore keeps the momentum of the piece driving forward and also expresses a sense of the desire to capture or isolate specific moments, like snapshots and memories or Post-It Notes. Agnes, Louise and Theresa are not overtly sentimental, but their connection to Marion Bridge- a place that offers as many questions for them as answers- can be seen as their desire to hold on to something comforting and peaceful and happy (even if ephemeral) from their mother and their childhood.
It’s rare that plays about Atlantic Canada get to travel to the rest of the country with their Atlantic Canadian casts and creative teams intact. This is one production I wish everyone everywhere could see. It makes me feel proud to be Nova Scotian.
Valley Summer Theatre’s Marion Bridge plays at the Al Whittle Theatre (450 Main Street, Wolfville) until July 20, 2014. For tickets please visit Box of Delights (466 Main Street, Wolfville) or call Toll Free (877) 845-1341 or go online to TicketPro.