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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Delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite in Creditors

Creditors - Noah Reid & Liisa Repo-Martell - Coal Mine Theatre - Photo By Michael Cooper13
Liisa Repo-Martell & Noah Reid in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

First trip out to The Coal Mine Theatre last night to see the company’s production of August Strindberg’s Creditors, adapted by David Greig and directed by Rae Ellen Bodie.

An intimate space (at 798 Danforth Ave., below the Magic Oven), Coal Mine is a storefront-style space – in this case, the black box has been set up with thrust staging, the audience in a tight horseshoe around the playing area. All the better to be flies on the wall for this trio of love, jealousy and revenge, played out in a series of three two-handed scenes.

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Noah Reid & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Watching Creditors is like seeing Shepard meets Chekhov – the characters are embedded deeply under each other’s skin, and love is obsessive, desperate and even child-like. You just know that it will all end in tears. Gustav (Hardee T. Lineham) meets Adolph (Noah Reid) at a bayside hotel, where Adolph is staying with his older wife Tekla (Liisa Repo-Martell). Under the guise of being friendly and helpful, Gustav proceeds to burrow inside Adolph’s head, sewing seeds of doubt in himself, his work as an artist and his marriage. The devil appearing with a smile and a caring tone, offering assistance even as he lays waste all in his path (see Lineham talk about Gustav and evil here).

Creditors is a period piece that roars today. Darkly funny and acutely intelligent, it’s a sharp look at relationships, and how those involved are molded and changed. How imperceptibly the thoughts, ideas and expressions of the one you love can seep into your consciousness. It is a powerful examination of the power dynamics of older and younger, experience and innocence, artist and muse; the give and take of relationships. And in that taking, one becomes indebted to one’s husband, wife, lover – particularly where there is an imbalance of power and especially when one has taken too much. One will always owe the other. And if you run out on your bill, someone may come after you.

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Liisa Repo-Martell & Hardee T. Lineham in Creditors – photo by Michael Cooper

Bodie brings an excellent trio of actors to this power play of obsessive love and revenge. Reid’s Adolph is boyishly sweet, naïve and guileless, possessing of a pliable, open-mindedness that may appear weak at first, but is more about youthful optimism and energy. Manipulated by Gustav, the starry-eyed young lover turns green-eyed with jealousy, his crutches and poor health an outward sign of his inner frailty. Lineham’s Gustav is deliciously understated in his evil intent; calculating, bitter and vengeful – but seasoned enough to know that vengeance is best served cold. It is both fascinating and abhorrent to watch as he plays puppet master to Adolph and Tekla, making them dance to his tune and then cutting the strings. Repo-Martell is luminous as Tekla; older than Adolph and beginning to feel her age despite the nervous girlish giggle she maintains, while she loves passionately and fully, she is forever dissatisfied – her first husband too old and her second too young – a spider caught in her own web. And yet, we feel for her as a woman whose options are limited, living in a time in which a woman must live through a man.

With shouts to composer Ted Dykstra for the lovely, cascading classical piano arrangement; Andrea Mittler’s lush set, with its oriental rugs and golden frames; and Ming Wong’s rich period costuming.

Creditors is a delightfully vicious melodramedy with laughs that bite and a stellar cast.

Creditors continues its run at the Coal Mine Theatre until May 17. Advance tix are strongly recommended – you can purchase them online here.

In the meantime, check out these other video chats: Repo-Martell talks about relationships within the play and Reid talks about the cutting comedy. You can also keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter.