Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.

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Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.

A delightful crush fest of summer love – Amicus Productions’ A Month in the Country

A month in the countrySpent a delightful afternoon at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills yesterday for a matinée performance of Amicus Productions’ A Month in the Country (Ivan Turgenev, translated by Constance Garnett and adapted by Christopher Douglas), directed by Maureen Lukie.
Family, friends and household staff feel the heat – and, in most cases, not just the seasonal temperature – at the country home of Natalya and Arkady. Secret love and repressed feelings bubble to the surface, creating a chaotic mess of dramatically comic proportions during a series of surprises, confessions and emerging rivalries.
Lukie has an excellent cast, consistently strong across the board, for this comedy of love. Kathleen Jackson Allamby is lovely as Natalya; conflicted, bored and adored, equal parts caged lioness and spider spinning. Chris Coculuzzi gives a stand-out performance as Mihail, sharp-witted with an equally pointed tongue, all the while simmering with a desperate love for his dear friend, who happens to be his best friend’s wife. Sam Polito is adorkable as the shy and affable tutor Alexey, loved by one woman and smitten with another; and Nicole Marie McCafferty is endearing as Vera, the energetic and outspoken ward of the household, a girl on the brink of womanhood. James Lukie’s Dr. Shpigelksy is deliciously misanthropic and cynical beneath the charming bedside manner and, in his own practical, logical way, is smitten himself; Sara Kohal gives a great, layered performance as Lizaveta (Anna’s companion), who is good-natured and warm, open to love herself but not suffering fools. Zvi Gilbert’s Arkady is sweetly clueless in an absent-minded professor sort of way, but ultimately no push-over; and Carol McLennan is a delight as Arkady’s protective mother Anna, comical in her bafflement as she tries to make sense of and provide advice amongst all the goings-on. And Derek Dorey is great fun as Boltshinsov, the older man too afraid of the opposite sex to make his own proposal of marriage. Young cast members Vivien Shepherd and Lorien Aquarius also bring strong performances: Shepherd is a treat as the precocious young housemaid Katya, both witness to and messenger for the various love-afflicted among the household; and Aquarius is adorably rambunctious and mercurial as Natalya and Arkady’s son Kolya.
Shouts to set designer Arash Eshghpour for the minimalist, yet extremely effective and lovely environment for this story. The set has a lightness and sense of floating to it, as do the costumes, by Katherine Johanna Cordero, the light colours and fabrics evoking both the period and the season.
One of my favourite plays (I’ve seen other fine productions at the Shaw Festival and by Soulpepper), seeing A Month in the Country yesterday reminded me of this song:


Amicus Productions’ A Month in the Country is a delightful, funny and touching crush fest of summer love – running at the Papermill Theatre until May 10. Get yourself over there and fall in love with this play. In the meantime, check out the interview videos with the cast on the Amicus website.

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!