Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.

The power, magic & malice of words in the fascinating, visceral, philosophical, sensual Knives in Hens

Clockwise from top: Jonathon Young, Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre kicks off its 6th season with David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Leora Morris. Set in 15th century Scotland in the outskirts of a small, stifling rural village, it’s a fascinating, visceral, philosophical and sensual look at the evolution of words and language—and the power such awareness brings. Knives in Hens opened at the Coal Mine Theatre to a sold-out house last night.

Pony William (Jim Mezon) is a ploughman; growing and harvesting grain on his land with his young wife, simply known as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). He keeps a tight rein on her, her micromanaged days working around their home dutifully reported to him; he even manages her thoughts. She’s not allowed in the barn; he says it’s because the horses don’t know her and she’ll fright them. She has pensive flights of fancy, wondering about what things are called and struggling to describe what she sees out in the small world around her; and he discourages these, especially around their village neighbours.

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Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young mare shows signs of a difficult oncoming labour, and with the grain harvested and needing immediate grinding, William sends his wife to the mill with five sacks of grain, issuing a stern warning about the character of the miller and precise instructions as to how to behave during the transaction. According to William, the miller is universally hated—a widower rumoured to have killed his wife and child.

The Young Woman finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who writes his thoughts down using pen and paper—translating his thoughts into words that will last long after the thoughts have dissipated. As she spends time with him, the Young Woman’s curious, fevered attempts at finding the words for moments she witnesses on the land blossom and grow—and with this mastery comes increased power and self-confidence.

Bentley brings a feisty, curious edge to the Young Woman; always searching and questioning—despite her husband’s insistence that she keep her wondering mind to herself. She reaches out into the world and into her mind for the words to express that world. Mezon’s old patriarchal ploughman combines a gruff severity with doting adoration; but William seems to be more enamoured of his horses than his wife. The Young Woman is something he saw and wanted; something to put to work around the house and to warm his bed. That she has no name is telling, for to name something—or someone—is to make it useful and give it power. Young gives Gilbert a somewhat sly, enigmatic vibe; amused and playful regarding the villagers’ gossip about him, Gilbert is a sensitive, introspective and even lonely man. A man who longs to see and know the world outside the mill and the small-minded confines of the village. Like the Young Woman, his mind and heart are too big for this small life—and he needs to get out. And it is he who asks the Young Woman’s name; and though she writes it, we never hear it spoken aloud.

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Jonathon Young. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kaitlin Hickey’s earthy set, combined with a heavenly lighting design, puts us in mind both of the sun and the light of knowledge, shining down on the Earth and its creatures—highlighting the divine and profane aspects of this story. And if you cross the raised playing area to the seating on the other side, or to use the washroom, you can feel and smell the earth beneath your feet. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s dramatic string-dominated sound design underscores the beating heart of land and its people, and the soaring, magical and menacing power of words. And Michelle Tracey’s period costumes mark when we are and who these people are; simple rural folk in an age of religion and superstition.

Divine and profane, poetic and pragmatic, visceral and cerebral—the journey from thought to word is fraught with religious and societal meaning and repercussions. Thoughts entering the mind are thought to come from God; whereas words and language are a corporeal, human construct. We are reminded of the Creation story—the characters mirroring the three main players of God, Adam and Eve. The word made flesh. And as God named the creatures of the Earth, so too does man name what he sees. Does that make us God?

Knives in Hens continues at Coal Mine Theatre until October 13; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.