By Dave Rabjohn
There is much joy and beauty to celebrate on the emerald isle of Ireland. By contrast, at least an equal amount of pain and horror blight the history of this complicated country. The nineteenth century was visited by famine and hunger while the twentieth century was struck with violence and civil strife and the “Troubles.” The Toronto Irish Players should be commended for not shirking from exploring the difficult themes that come from such a difficult history.
This company has been a Toronto fixture for 44 years and they should be proud of the wide range of programming they offer around the culture of Ireland.
The Land Grabber recently opened at The Alumnae Theatre in Toronto and runs until Mar 2, 2019. The play dives full throttle into the politics and pain of the land wars of the late 1800’s that mainly resulted from the potato famines both major and minor. Originally created years ago by Edward F. Barrett, it has been revived by his grandson James Phelan and newly produced in this North American premiere.
Interacting themes of guilt, bias, blame, and tunnel vision permeate this dark play. The complexity of these interactions is what drives the relationships among characters and also what drives them apart. The magnitude of their tragedy is repeatedly expressed by the starkness of the line “I’m sorry for your troubles.” Some of the writing strongly expresses the horror and depths of these themes – Johnny Foley’s agonizing soliloquy about the roots of his obsession with financial success is a sample. Other times the writing is stilted and uneven, over simplifying or manipulative – an example is the strange resolution of a complex police matter in just a few minutes in the second act.
Meghan De Chastelain is a standout playing daughter Mary Foley. Her strength as an actor comes from the range of emotions and the subtlety she displays in some of the most heated moments. Ms. De Chastelain can rail with power like the best of them but she balances the outward rage with quiet fury. In Act One, she is sitting quietly, hands comfortably folded in her lap, while her eyes appear to be on fire as her head slowly moves from target to target.
Johnny Foley is the main target for the anger from all sides. Played by Thomas O’Neill, the actor has the power and strength to engage in the roughest of conflicts. A highlight is the aforementioned soliloquy. His portrayal , though, does not give us the dimensions of personality that we see in Mary. He begins quickly with stiff arm- swinging and a loud aggressive voice that never diminishes until his very final acceptance of fate. His wife, Ellen, is played by Kelly-Marie Murtha who demonstrates a full range of tenderness, anger, and pain. She carefully portrays the glue of the family until circumstances completely break her.
Ted Powers’ fine performance as the redeemed victim is highlighted by a careful turn as a drunk in the first act then as a voice of reason in the second act. A determined pause in the doorway and quiet survey of the room during a final exit was an astonishing moment. Blake Canning as son Billy creates a believable character as he staggers from crisis to crisis trying to hold everything together. More minor characters, such as the constabulary, seemed stiff and awkward – perhaps a result of the uneven writing or misplaced blocking.
Other blocking set up some stunning moments. Director Kristin Chan created a beautiful portrait to frame Johnny’s soliloquy. The entire family established a careful tableau, sitting or standing, as they quietly absorb the horrors of Johnny’s background. Some decisions with lighting and sound were confusing. Mainly in the second act, lights seemed to dim and reappear to portray entrances and exits or the passage of time – it was often unclear which. The music lacked focus with a variety of styles and instruments. A beautiful haunting piano piece near the end could have been a wonderful thread through the entire production. Some crowd sound effects seemed to come and go from strange directions.
The rustic farm set delivered a strong backdrop for this historical drama. From the team of Sean Treacy, Geraldine Brown, and Anne Lyons the set design demonstrated all the elements of difficult farm life. The walls were subtly low offering the suppressing sense of the tragedy. An interesting element was the placing of the door knobs well above the middle of the doors. Either research discerned that this was typical of an Irish farmhouse, or it was a design decision to further the theme of cramped suppression – congratulations either way.
Again TIP should be congratulated for embracing an overwhelming emotional play. Much of it rings true for contemporary audiences. “Nothing I’ve done is against the law.” Sounds like dissembling politicians of all stripes. The crisis of affordable housing in Toronto is echoed by the evictions of hardworking farmers in nineteenth century Ireland. Perhaps the spirit of that country’s New Land Act can be a part of housing conversations in the here and now.