Liberty at any cost – hardened life choices in Toronto Irish Players’ Big Maggie

bigmaggie1Saw another marvelous Toronto Irish Players (TIP) production yesterday afternoon – this time, John B. Keane’s Big Maggie, directed by Harvey Levkoe, on now at Alumnae Theatre.

Big Maggie is set in 1960s rural Ireland, where recently widowed Maggie Polpin (Janice Hansen) is delighted at her newfound freedom from a philandering lout of a husband – and doesn’t care who knows it. Her four young adult children, each in various stages of grief, are disappointed when mum takes control of the family farm and general store, not receiving their expected share of the business – and are forced into choosing her way or the highway. For Maggie, her singular goal is to live free and secure, with no one to answer to or for but herself. And she is not above making some ruthless, calculated choices to get there.

Levkoe has a fine cast for Big Maggie, with some particular stand-outs. Janice Hansen gives an outstanding performance as Maggie, the complex family matriarch, full of anger, ambition, desire and unstoppable drive. Maggie has a sharp wit and can be darkly funny, but is also so very lonely – and by choice. Lovely turns from the actors playing the Polpin kids: Ben Clifford as the oldest brother Maurice, struggling to come to a compromise with his mother so he can have a life of his own; Kyrah Harder’s Gert, the youngest daughter and “good girl” of the family, dreams still intact, and longing for her mother’s love and approval; Conor Murphy as the impetuous firebrand youngest brother Mick; and Kate Sheridan as “bad girl” Katie, strong-willed and driven, but no match for her mother. Stephen Flett was a delight, providing comic relief as Byrne, the cemetery monument sculptor and hopeful bachelor. Damien Gulde was very effective as the charming playboy travelling sales rep Teddy; and Rebecca Liddiard gave a strong, layered performance as Maurice’s sweetheart, balancing the introvert/extrovert and mild/fierce sides of Mary.

Shouts to designer Wayne Cardinalli, and the construction and dressing teams, for a beautifully rendered, detailed and practical set that drew us into the Polpin’s world.

Liberty at any cost. In the end, Maggie, with her life-hardened choices, is as much a victim of time, place and circumstance as those around her are victims of her premeditated cruelty – especially her children.

Big Maggie continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage – until March 8. I strongly recommend you reserve in advance – this past weekend’s performances were sold out.

In the meantime, check out the Big Maggie backstage goings-on via interviews and production photos on the TIP blog, by writer/journalist/blogger Jennifer Hough.

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An excavation of mothers & daughters in Midden

First off, let’s get a big question out of the way – I know it was a big one for me. What the heck is a “midden”? Director Maureen Lukie answers this question in her Director’s Notes in the Midden program: it is a “form of burial mound found in archeological digs, where you can see layers of relics revealing how ancient peoples lived.” The word has also been used to refer to a messy space, as in a child’s disaster area bedroom, and also as a place where witches reside.

In the Toronto Irish Players’ (TIP) production of Morna Regan’s play Midden, “midden” refers to the place where family history is kept “preserved but not whole” – and open to a variety of interpretations when unearthed. The same story is never told the same way twice – and retold moments and events are shaped by individual points of view and rationalizations, and complex, multiple layers of family dynamic.

Yulia Shtern’s beautiful and practical set, the Sweeney kitchen, recently redecorated in anticipation of a daughter’s return, illustrates the sense of layers perfectly. The lower half of the walls is the colour of clay and the upper half is wallpapered with a pattern that appears to be close-up images of the seashore – layers of sea shells and stones washed up along the water’s edge – and the linoleum floor below like clay stones underfoot. The kitchen is ground zero for this multi-generational excavation. Even Ruth’s clothing designs (gorgeous costumes designed by Bernie Hunt) include a family history: Irish lace and three dropped stitches, taught to her by Dophie, so as to avoid the hubris of perfection. Three generations of mothers and daughters, secrets and grudges.

Ruth returns home after a long, somewhat estranged absence in America, now a successful fashion designer preparing to launch her Maiden City collection in Ireland. While she was away, struggling to establish her career, her grandmother Dophie has been struggling with Alzheimer’s, her Ma with looking after Dophie, and her younger sister Aileen with trying to leave home and establish a small transport business with her boyfriend. Ruth is also dealing with an identity crisis, both personal and cultural, and has just fled from her impending marriage to her fiancé Matt. The significant men in each woman’s life, some no longer living, are mentioned but never seen – and it is the women’s relationships, especially among the family, that is the focus here.

The lovely all-female cast features Lucy Farrell (Ruth),  Cliona Kenny (Dophie, Ruth’s grandmother), Barbara Taylor (Ma, Ruth’s mother), Sharon Taylor (Aileen, Ruth’s younger sister – doing double duty as producer) and Jennifer Hough (Mabs, Ruth’s friend and business partner). Farrell does a nice job with Ruth’s internal and external conflicts, trying to reach out and establish connections while keeping her boundaries intact at the same time – as are all the characters here. Kenny gives a lovely nuanced performance as Dophie, haunted by memories of the past that are all too clear compared with her tenuous grasp of the present. Barbara Taylor shows in Ma a woman caught up in the lives of her family, who she loves, but who has given up so much of herself and become embittered in the process – in North America, we’d say she was of the sandwich generation. Sharon Taylor’s Aileen, at turns hurt and rebellious, is also caught – unable to leave home and caught between life with her family and the life she longs for with a business and family of her own. Hough is a spit fire riot as Mabs – Ruth’s touchstone and confidant – juggling a family of her own with work and managing to look on the lighter side of things.

In Midden, as in life, we see – along with Ruth – that “You can go home, but you can’t go back.”

Midden continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until March 9. Please visit the TIP website for details and reservations: http://www.torontoirishplayers.com/index.php

And congrats to TIP for being named Irish Person of the Year 2013!