The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Brings Newfoundland History to Life

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carmen grant & colin furlong

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, now playing in Halifax at Neptune Theatre, is an adaptation by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel of the same name. It is a work of historical fiction, which imagines the real-life Joe Smallwood, sometimes called “The Last Father of Confederation,” interwoven in the life of a fictional Sheilagh Fielding, an ambitious and cutting political journalist, against the backdrop of the fall of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

There are so many beautiful layers to Chafe’s play. At its core, it is about the relationship between two very complex human beings, Fielding and Smallwood. Fielding is a pioneering, entrepreneurial woman, who is also an alcoholic battling deep secrets and intense emotional struggles. Carmen Grant creates a true force of nature in this deeply flawed woman, whose writing talent and tenacity to survive in a man’s world is, nevertheless, inspiring. Colin Furlong plays Smallwood, the scrappy underdog, as a man continually trying to do the right thing, but who often finds he’s accidentally screwed something up. There is a bit of a hapless Rick Moranis in Furlong’s portrayal of Smallwood, which ensures that even when all the odds are stacked against him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.   

Chafe’s characters also beautifully mirror the political landscape in Newfoundland in the years between 1927 and 1948. Smallwood is the perpetual idealist. He begins as a passionate Socialist advocating for Newfoundland’s poorest residents. He believes, earnestly, that he is working in the best interest of the working class, and that there is reason for hope among Depression and possibility among War, and he latches on to Confederation with Canada as a testament to that promise. Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, is the cold voice of Cynicism. As a journalist she criticizes all sides of the political spectrum. In her column hope and idealism are  sneered at and dismissed as naive. She views Newfoundland with a hard sense of fatalistic doom. Both represent a clash of two prevalent viewpoints. In a similar way, Fielding is Cosmopolitan and worldly; she writes with scathing wit and academic sophistication, catering to a certain audience, largely centred in St. John’s. Smallwood reaches a different demographic in focusing on the Island’s folklore on The Barrelman, his radio program. It then becomes clear that the future of Newfoundland’s nationhood is divided along these same geographical and economic lines.

Although this play is set in the 20th Century, it is timely to see a story of politicians being beleaguered by a free press; one might even charge Fielding with printing “Fake News.” Although, it was the scene where three men sit at a typewriter intent on destroying the career of a female journalist, to shut her up and to break her, that I found most eerily reminiscent of our own time. It reminded me of the Twitter war against Leslie Jones after Ghostbusters was released and of Donald Trump’s inexcusable treatment of Megyn Kelly. In that moment, Sheilagh Fielding was Everywoman who dares to push the boundaries for women, and who dares to express herself in print.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Furlong and Grant both give formidable, deeply nuanced and heartrending performances. Steve O’Connell and Alison Woolridge shine dramatically as Smallwood’s parents, Charlie and Minnie, embroiled in domestic troubles of their own.

Jillian Keiley directs the piece with a beautiful, continuous sense of movement, and of time, and perpetual snow, that clearly propels the audience through this truly epic era of Newfoundland history. The sets and props are minimal, which gives Keiley the freedom to take us anywhere in a moment and the stage effortlessly transitions between scenes with ten actors (large by Canadian standards), to much more intimate moments with just Fielding or just Smallwood.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know very much at all about the history of Newfoundland, beyond that she joined Canada in 1948, until I saw this play. Its history is far more dramatic than I realized, and I was truly riveted throughout, not knowing how the demise of the Dominion of Newfoundland was going to play out. It is so important that we tell these stories and also that we take them out of our Communities and share them with those who live elsewhere in the country, and beyond. I feel enriched in my new knowledge of how Newfoundland came to join the Dominion of Canada, and to learn so much while being so thoroughly entertained and moved, is really the best the theatre can ask for.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays on Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage in Halifax (1593 Argyle Street) until March 12. Show times are Tuesdays to Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $33 to $70 and are available here.     

Opening Up Sharon Pollock’s Doc

r.h. thompson and jane spidell
photo by cylla von tiedemann
It is difficult for Catherine to return to her childhood home in Fredericton, even to visit her aging father, without being forced to confront the ghostly memories from her childhood and the anguished voices overlapping and tormenting her with unopened letters from a potentially suicidal grandmother, the guilt of words said and not said that broke her mother, and the absence from their home of a dedicated, ambitious, passionate local doctor who sacrificed his responsibilities as a husband and a parent to give every ounce of his energy and attention to saving the lives of his patients. This is the story of Doc, a revival of the 1984 Governor General’s Award winning play by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock playing at Soulpepper Theatre which has been extended until September 23rd, 2010.
Sharon Pollock constructs this story tightly as the narrative shifts from the present reunion between Catherine and her father, Ev, who is being honoured with a hospital named for him, and various moments from the past, which are woven sequentially into the action with seamless precision. It is through this convention that Catherine is able to examine not only her relationship with her father, but their relationship with her mother Eloise Roberts, known as Bob, who has been dead for many years and also the role of their family friend Oscar. I find it interesting that so many attribute Pollock’s choice to have two separate characters, the younger Katie and the older Catherine, to keep the daughter of the present and the daughter of the memory separate- yet still able to communicate, as being distinctively unique or innovative. While I can appreciate that this convention may have been inventive for the memory play in 1984, conversely, it seems to me that it has since been adopted freely by a collection of contemporary playwrights. I know, for example, that Jordan Tannahill and I used a variation of this idea in our short play Shadowed in 2008, which was strongly influenced by Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched and we certainly felt that we were borrowing the concept from our theatrical ancestors.
Innovative or not, I think that having both Catherine and Katie in the play allows the audience to appreciate how detached the grownup version of this character feels from her own past experiences. Catherine sees Katie as being an entirely separate entity from herself, and she watches her memories happen to this young girl rather than feeling them invade her own body. Catherine is the observer of the play and in this way, she almost mirrors the audience, for it is Catherine who is seeking redemption, closure and answers. She is the one putting each of the snapshots together. The difficulty in this situation is that Catherine exists only on the periphery of the play, and thus the audience is not given the opportunity to delve deeply into her thoughts, feelings or actions. Carmen Grant plays Catherine with a shrewd straightforward kindness, but the breadth of her performance is limited by her character’s removal from the heart of the story.
Doc is based, at least in part, on Sharon Pollock’s own life and I find sometimes that one of the challenges of an autobiographical work is that playwrights often encounter difficulty in characterizing themselves. I found myself wondering a lot about Katie, the pragmatic, independent, strong, adolescent who holds her father in proud esteem and shows only hatred and coldness toward her mother as the latter spirals from Depression to alcoholism and drug addiction. It seemed curious to me that Katie’s emotions be so cleanly divided and I wondered if perhaps the pain and anger that Pollock felt toward her own mother as an adult may have distorted her memories of the true scope and complexity of her feelings as a young girl in a similar situation. Katie shows no warmth, no compassion or love toward her mother at all in Doc, not even before Bob’s Depression sets in and not because Bob always lacks maternal care, but because Katie, from the beginning, is entirely unreceptive to it. On the other hand, I found Katie’s rich interactions with Oscar, cascading from grateful affection and curiosity to wild, passionate outbursts of resentful rage, to be very indicative of the adamantly repressed impact her mother’s demons and her father’s preoccupations were having on her. Hannah Gross plays Katie with an intense thoughtfulness and carefully considered, but still naive, expressions of emotion. Derek Boyes is subtle in his characterization of Oscar, an underachiever who, on the one hand merely leaches on to the life his best friend has built, but on the other, is seeking to rescue Bob and Catherine from being entire abandoned. I think it would have been interesting if Pollock had explored the relationship between Catherine and Katie more thoroughly, because although it is significant that Catherine has compartmentalized this aspect of her life in Katie, it seems like the play’s catharsis could benefit from a more volatile collision of these two elements.
Diana LeBlanc has the stage sectioned into three distinct areas and characters who are not immediately present in the scenes remain visible, and not entirely frozen, as though ghosts perceiving the action from afar. This does help give additional strength to Catherine and Katie’s burgeoning relationship.
Pollock’s playwriting prowess is at its best in her depiction of Bob and Ev and in this production they are given mesmerizing and formidable performances by Jane Spidell and R.H. Thompson respectively. Thompson captures a perfect gruff distance as the older, cantankerous Ev who insists on yelling at Catherine about her estrangement from the family and lack of direction because it is the only way he knows how to express his concern for her. His gruffness softens into the idealistic ambition of youth and finally settles into a purposeful devotion to the needs of his patients, which justifies his choice to turn a blind eye to his disintegrating home life. Thompson’s Ev exists entirely in a vacuum, fixated only on the crises of his own choosing and adamant in his opinion that these choices make him honourable.
Jane Spidell gives a magnificently harrowing performance as Bob, the heart wrenching formerly verbose nurse with an alluring giggle who is forced out of the work that once filled her with a proud sense of purpose, passion and competence after the birth of Catherine because Ev wants her to subscribe to his vision of the stay-at-home doctor’s wife. After suffering a hysterectomy, Bob sinks even deeper into Depression, feeling as though she has completely lost her sense of self and has been reduced to something utterly useless and powerless, where the only control she can authorize is over the hiring of the maid. As Bob hurtles like a train off the tracks into violent, desperate addiction, Spidell throws every ounce of her fierce vulnerability into both Bob’s drunken stupors and her valiant attempts to cling to some semblance of happiness and to drag herself back to a person she recognizes. Spidell manages to infuse Bob with a warmth, a humanity, and an overwhelming sense of loss that makes her not only intensely mesmerizing, but also utterly heart breaking.
With Spidell and Thompson’s killer instincts firmly on Doc’s pulse, this is powerful theatre that will surely get your blood pumping.

Doc by Sharon Pollock plays at Soulpepper Theatre (The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto) until September 23rd, 2010. For tickets or more information please call 416.866.8666 or visit www.soulpepper.ca.