By Joe Szekeres
I am sorry to have missed ‘Doctor Barnardo’s Children’ and its original production at 4th Line several years ago as word of mouth rang exceptional in performance delivery and history lesson of Peterborough. I was told it wasn’t necessary to have seen the first and second plays to appreciate future stories.
After hearing playwrights Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow deliver an informative talk back session in the late afternoon, I still think seeing the first two productions (with the fourth one on its way) would have given me a further understanding and appreciation for and of the background of ‘Carmel’, the third instalment of the Barnardo play series. Chalk one up for this newbie to keep his eyes pealed to 4th Line’s future social media links.
Nevertheless, my friend Carolyn and I sallied forth amid some dark clouds that did pass over us thankfully and mercifully with no rain.
The year is 1937 and it is the Great Depression. ‘Carmel’ takes place on and near Walter (Kevin Bundy) and Abigail (Kristina Nicoll) White’s family farm on Carmel Line, Cavan Township. Other settings include Peterborough, Hampton, and Millbrook. The play opens with a celebration of the fifteenth wedding anniversary of Walter and Abigail.
We also meet the central narrator of the story, Walter and Abigail’s daughter, Ruth (Asha Hall-Smith) and her chance encounter in meeting drifters Thomas Fortune (Danny Waugh) and Billy Fiddler (Jonathan Shatzky). Both Thomas and Billy are looking to find work before they head overseas to Spain, so they hope they can be hired on at the White’s farm which they are. We are also introduced to Delbert Gray (JD Nicholsen), local bank manager who puts a great deal of pressure on the Whites to pay their monthly mortgage.
I love the performance space here in this rural setting of the Winslow Farm. An angled riser sits centre stage with the suggestion of the framework of the White house and its front door. It looks as if it is probably the kitchen which becomes the gathering area. A table and chairs can be found upstage readied to be placed when necessary. Far stage left are two live hens next to the barn. It appears there are three locked signs on the upstairs rail that will be revealed. Three beautiful live horses are also used during the performance. I’m always leery of the use of live animals as we never know they will behave in front of an audience. One was a bit feisty for a few seconds, but the actors had the horse under control.
Some of the performances seemed a tad uneven at this opening night. Asha Hall-Smith seemed a bit hesitant for the first few minutes of the opening of the play when she addresses the audience directly. She has a lovely speaking voice and soon found her stride with her enthusiasm and sweet character development of Ruth. I bought the natural husband and wife relationship of Kevin Bundy and Kristina Nicoll especially when they had to excuse themselves from their anniversary party to argue quietly they cannot afford Walter’s purchase of two horses from Delbert Gray. Walter and Abigail’s relationship is dramatically and continually fraught with upcoming intensities and trials of human nature. I’m trying not to spoil the plot but pay close attention to Mr. Bundy’s two silent moments of heightened dramatic intensity – once occurs in the first act where one of the drifters recognizes Walter from the boat ride from England many years ago. The other occurs with one of the horses in the second act.
JD Nicholsen’s Delbert Gray nicely retains that bully edge of smugness that made me want to go up there and punch him right in the face for so many reasons - one is the way in which he tries to manipulate Abigail for the mortgage on the farm to be paid on time. As the two drifters who enter the lives of the White family, Danny Waugh and Jonathan Shatzky adroitly capture that mysterious element of those ‘bums’ who appear suddenly out of nowhere yet somehow leave an indelible impression on the lives of those whom they encounter for however long they stay. The use and incorporation of music becomes an effective vantage point which leads either to further character development or a quick byte of historical context. (I loved the humour and irony in ‘Song of the Bum’). Thanks, Justin Hiscox and to Melissa Payne for the fiddle accompaniment.
Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow’s script sheds important historical elements of this area that I have always found fascinating and wish that residents would want to learn more about the history of the town or city in which they live. One thing that always puzzles me about original historical scripts are those moments the audience finds funny when a certain town is mentioned they know – is it a laugh because people have made a connection, an aha moment? As Director, Mr. Winslow had a strong handle on the subject material and kept it moving at a stable and steady pace for the most part. Perhaps it might have been opening night nerves, but some of the actors appear simply to recite the dialogue and not recognize the importance in the conveying of this information. Hopefully this will be rectified as performances continue.
In his Director’s Notes, Mr. Winslow speaks about the heartbeat of ‘Carmel’. It doesn’t have to be an Ottawa based Prime Minister or a Toronto based premier who speaks about the Canadian people from inside an office. Mr. Winslow thanks area farmer/market gardener Harold Lunn who epitomized the heartbeat of a community, the one who gets his hands dirty in tilling the soil and making progress in his community.
Pay a visit to the Winslow Farm and to 4th Line Theatre to feel the heartbeat of a rural community and a troupe of solid actors who tell a good story.
‘Carmel’ runs to August 31 at The Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, in Millbrook, Ontario. For tickets, visit the website.