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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Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission

Andrea Irwin, Thomas O’Neill, Evan Walsh & Gillian Reed. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Peter denied Jesus three times and yet became the Rock upon which the Catholic Church was built—its first Pope. Cardinal Matias Iglesias denies knowing three people from his past and he is a favourite to become the next Pope.

Alumnae Theatre Company explores sins of commission and omission in a time of civil and social conflict in Alice Abracen’s Omission, directed by Anne Harper.

It’s the eve of a papal conclave, and Canadian journalist Megan Gutierrez (Gillian Reed) visits the office of Latin American Cardinal Matias Iglesias (Thomas O’Neill), to interview him as part of a piece about the top candidates for the papacy. The jocular tone of their meeting turns adversarial when she asks him about three people: Angelo Flores, Laura Ballan-Kohn and Gabriel Mejia. While initially denying knowledge of any of them, when faced with accusations of complicity in the actions of a military junta, the Cardinal convinces Megan to stay and hear his side of the story. The ghosts from his past—General Angelo Flores (Lawrence Aronovitch), Professor Laura Ballan-Kohn (Andrea Irwin)  and Father Gabriel Mejia (Evan Walsh)—all materialize as he relates the events and relationships.

Keeping his head down and careful to not antagonize the ruling regime, Iglesias—a Bishop when these events began—is determined to protect his people from harm no matter what the cost. But civil conflict arrives on his doorstep when Ballan-Kohn, a long-time friend and confidante, begins to speak out against the witch hunt on certain political and philosophical books, and the students and teachers who own them are rounded up never to be seen again. And Mejia, who considers Iglesias a mentor, disobeys orders to avoid certain areas, where he’s been secretly administering to the hungry and dying—criminals and terrorists in the eyes of the regime. Afraid that his friends’ resistance is putting them in grave danger, Iglesias is unable to mollify Flores, a friend from childhood who now enforces the party line, describing the missing and murdered as having “left the country”—viewing all resistors as terrorists, and their absence a political boon.

Strong, committed performances from the entire cast in this story of confession, revelation and absolution. O’Neill, a former Archdiocese of Toronto altar boy, is an impressive presence as the ambitious Cardinal. As charming and affable as he is diplomatic and cunning, Iglesias knows how to play the political game—but when the game gets too close to home, will he still have the stomach to play it? Reed brings a great sense of mission and conflict to Megan; sharp-witted and relentless in her determination to discover the truth, Megan is also nervous, vulnerable and harbouring a secret of her own.

omission 2
Foreground: Andrea Irwin & Thomas O’Neill. Background: Gillian Reed, Lawrence Aronovitch & Evan Walsh. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Walsh gives young Father Gabriel a lovely aura of awkward, youthful drive. Naiveté and idealism mature with Gabriel’s earnest passion to do what is right, no matter how dangerous to his own well-being. Irwin is an unstoppable force as the mercurial, rambunctious and irreverent Professor Ballan-Kohn. Whip-smart, and possessing of a fiery spirit and courageous soul, Ballan-Kohn—whose parents are Holocaust survivors—knows what it means when good people do nothing. Aronovitch does a great job with the two lives of General Flores; doting new father, good-humoured friend and religiously observant, he is also a cool, detached military man who follows and gives deadly and life-altering orders without question. An extreme example, the General reminds us of the compartmentalized life that anyone can live.

Sin goes beyond the commission of bad deeds to include the omission of good deeds. But what about the role of environment and circumstance? For better or worse, we all do what we feel is right, and in our guts and power to do in the moment. At what point do confession and absolution constitute forgiveness? In the end, like Megan, we are left to our own judgement of these proceedings. And who among us is without sin.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this theatrical world, where souls from the past commune with those of the present to tell this story: Margaret Spence (costumes), Evelyn Clarke (props), Teodoro Dragonieri (set), Ali Berkok (sound) and Wes Babcock (lighting).

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission.

Omission continues on the Alumnae mainstage until February 3; advance tickets available online or at the door (cash only). Tickets are $25, with half-price tickets on Wednesdays and PWYC Sunday matinees.