The program for Out of Black Cove, the new production from the St. Ann’s Bay Players, is subtitled, like an 18th novel, as being “a theatrical extravaganza that combines EPIC DRAMA, HILARIOUS COMEDY, ROMANCE, and MUSIC to tell the story of the founding of the Gaelic College, the St. Ann’s Gaelic Pioneers, and the stormy relationships that shaped the community”.
And it is all that and a bit more.
The play was commissioned from St. Ann’s Bay Players artistic director, Bev Brett, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Gaelic College, an institution that not only re-invigorated Gaelic culture in Cape Breton but, to a certain extent, restored its dignity. At the time of the College’s founding in the 1930’s, Gaelic culture was losing ground to out migration and the seemingly irresistible forces of assimilation.
Like a D. W. Griffith silent movie epic, Brett chooses to tell parallel stories in alternating time periods: how Reverend Norman MacLeod led a group of highly religious Scottish settlers to St. Ann’s in the mid-1800’s seeking a place to practice their beliefs without interference; and how another reverend, A. W. R. MacKenzie, while hired as a minister, became consumed with creating the Gaelic College.
Brett had access to a wealth of material, letters between MacKenzie and his wife Angie, stories from community members, and the massive research she accumulated while writing another play about MacLeod, The Margaret. MacKenzie and MacLeod were, in different ways, driven men: possessed by the certainty of their respective causes, full of a persuasive glamour, and, at certain points of their lives, hard to admire or even to like for the choices they made. It is a major strength of Brett’s script that this is an honest, warts and all, appraisal of her main characters: she doesn’t diminish their achievements but humanizes them. Brett is also at pains to the female perspective on her main characters as MacKenzie’s wife struggles through her marriage and one of MacLeod’s female congregants chafes under his dictatorial rule.
The talented cast of twelve take on multiple roles and serve them up with verve.
Todd Hiscock, as MacKenzie, and Mary-Ann Wilson, as Angie, give the most fully rounded performances: their dynamic as a struggling married couple, living hand to mouth in a posting that seems a dead end career move, is always believable. The actors share a barn-burning scene towards the end of the play where all of their simmering emotions reach full boil and how they confront them (especially AWR’s hero worship of MacLeod) is the dramatic climax and highlight of the play.
Frank MacKenzie previously played Norman MacLeod in the re-mounted production of The Margaret that toured New Zealand (Gary Walsh originated the role) and brings the save sternness and sharp wit he brought to that performance. His facility with Gaelic is also a major plus.
Murdenna Macdonald as “Dolena”, Yvonne Leblanc as “Flora”, and George Dauphney as “Kenny”–the mainstays of MacKenzie’s congregation and Gaelic mission–brought a humanity and wild humour to what might have been a dry history lesson. They were also expert at functioning as a Greek chorus to the proceedings.
The entire supporting cast, including Jika Zgola (“Mary MacLeod”), Ruth Schneider (“Mary Black”), and Peggy Jenkins (“Chief Flora”) gave focused and energetic performances in multiple roles: Ian Greene, struggling with some voice problems, was particularly enjoyable as the unctuous Scottish professor, “Dr. A.”; Michele Stephens was quietly affecting as the much put upon Younger Anna, one of MacLeod’s flock; Mat Noble had two roles that bridged the two parallel stories, Danny Bad, a St. Ann’s boy with an adopted Boston accent, and Murdock, another of MacLeod’s followers who had to toe a strict line before being allowed to marry.
Besides creating an ambitious, multi-layered script, Brett also directed her own play with bravado: the play jumps from domestic drama to historical re-enactment to broad slapstick comedy (especially in the hilarious recreation of the first Gaelic Mod with a maverick caber let loose on the audience), but the transitions were always credible and never jarring. The play had a swift pace but never felt rushed with scenes of deeply felt emotion and well-earned belly laughs.
A major factor in the success of this production was the musical contributions of The Englishtown Chorale under the direction of Evy Carnat. Their haunting rendition of “The Bay of St. Ann’s” (by Carnat’s brother, Leon Dubinsky), and several traditional Gaelic songs brought the audience in the mood of the piece. And soloist Connie MacAskill has a powerful, soul stirring voice that alone is worth buying a ticket to the play.
With intermission, the play is two and three quarters hours long, and sitting at the back of the Great Hall of the Clans on a sticky summer night I admit to making an effort to stay focused on the play. None of the other audience members seemed to have that problem, but I do think the script could possibly use some tightening.
The story of the MacKenzie’s struggle to create the College interested me more than the Norman MacLeod saga (although very well presented, was used more dramatically in The Margaret). They gave up career advancement, position, a lot of their dignity, and the hope of starting a family to pursue AWR’s dream of creating a preserve for Gaelic culture: that’s real theatrical meat. MacKenzie’s obsession with MacLeod made sense as a motivator but I would argue, outside of their historical interest (which for the community the play originated from is immense), the MacLeod scenes, despite being extremely well-written, acted, and directed, were the dramatic weak link in the script. MacLeod could have been a ghostly presence, as shown during the opening scenes (a la Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen), goading MacKenzie with his shortcomings (as he did his followers) until MacKenzie’s wife confronts her husband, as she does in this production, with the destructiveness of his obsession.
Judging by the standing ovation given the performance I was grateful to attend, this is probably a minority opinion (and an eensy-weensy minority at that).
But it might have cleared some space to delve deeper into a discussion of what happens when an endangered culture goes through the process of being “preserved”; when someone, always with the best intentions, decides this is “in” and this is “out” (shown in the “Dr. A.” scenes but mainly as a way of distinguishing Scottish Gaelic culture from its Cape Breton cousin).
And what happens when, to finance your quest for the Grail, you have to open a gift shop selling Grail key chains and Grail T-shirts to Grail tourists. There is some of that here, because Brett is a smart, informed writer on culture, but I had to ask myself after the performance: what would Norman MacLeod, a Gaelic speaker and unwavering man of God who railed against the “hellfire and damnation of Pictou”—Pictou?), make of our plaid mad Cape Breton Scottish culture? (Brett does have MacLeod have a laugh line with how he disapproves of “the incessant bagpiping with young girls lifting their skirts and baring their legs”.) Or how fiddle tunes, passed down through the generations, have passed into the mainstream as the music of choice for liquor fueled kitchen parties and pub shows? Even non-endangered cultures, healthy and self-sustaining, mutate and evolve over time. What happens when, as with the Gaelic College, the intention to draw in tourists is added to the mix? (Perhaps, as is also pointed out in the play, place names get changed from “South Gut” to the more genteel “South Haven”.)
I don’t know because I’m in the middle of the culture I find myself writing about, but I’m happy Brett has brought this story to the stage so that maybe other people might start thinking about it as well.
The St. Ann’s Bay Players’ production of Out of Black Cove, written and directed by Bev Brett, has two performances on Monday, July 22, and Tuesday, July 23, at 7:30 pm at the Gaelic College.