REVIEW BY JENN TUBRETT
First staged in 1999, nominated for the Governor General’s award, and possibly the most produced play ever written by a locally born playwright, you’d be hard pressed to find a Cape Breton theatre-goer unfamiliar with Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge. You may have studied it in high school (like I did), saw the 2002 film (like I did), saw it when it was staged at CBU (…like I also did) or simply heard of this “super-famous-play-written-by-a-guy-from-here.” However, for anyone who isn’t familiar, (you, under the rock!), Marion Bridge is a play about three sisters who return home to Cape Breton to care for their dying mother.
When I agreed to review this play, I promised myself that I would be unbiased, that I would be critical, and that I would provide a well-rounded review with both the ups and downs that most productions experience.
The problem? I cannot fault this production.
It may have been opening night magic (although, given the talent of the cast and the clear eye of the direction, I doubt it), but from the moment Lindsay Thompson takes the stage to give her opening monologue (the famous “In the dream I’m drowning…”), the audience is hooked. The play clips along, tension building and breaking, sometimes with a sarcastic joke and sometimes with a powerful outburst, so much that we could have been standing on the bridge with them in the concluding scene.
The majority of the play is set in the kitchen of the characters’ childhood home. Designed by Carol Bray and Todd Hiscock, and constructed by Tristan and Darren Bartlett, the set–which could be described as simple, but only by HAT standards–includes a counter, fridge, stove, and table set. The real character of the set is in the back drop, which alludes to exposed beams and water damage. The moment you sit down in the theatre, you already understand a few things about these characters: they’re tidy, not poor but not far from it, and they’re close (physically, not emotionally, that comes later). The small touches, such as the disposable salt and pepper shakers and peel-off lint brush on top of the fridge, makes it feel like it could be any kitchen. It could be my kitchen. The set is constructed centre stage with a nearly-equal amount of empty space on either side. This was a smart choice by director Todd Hiscock. When dealing with a stage as large as the one in the Highland Arts Theatre, the natural compulsion could be to use the entire space. However, by containing it to centre stage, Hiscock gives us a clear visual of the claustrophobic nature of this situation; these three women are stuck here, waiting for an end that can’t possibly be a happy one. Despite this, he still leaves his small cast of three with plenty of space to express themselves physically.
The music (sound design by Clayton McNeil with Kevin Munroe as the sound technician) is, for the most part, Celtic. Some tunes recognizable by melody, (such as a haunting and lovely rendition of Black Bird) even though the words are Gaelic. It takes us seamlessly from scene to scene, never giving the audience emotional respite from the powerful drama that is unfolding before us. The lighting (designed by Ken Heaton) gives us a clear indication of the time of day, tense spotlights, and outdoor brilliance—when the stark and bright “sunlight” hits the three actors in the final scene, the audience is lifted into a day that is not only physically bright, but promises a brighter future as well.
Stage Manager Ida Marie Steeves operated the light booth, but a stage manager’s work is so much more than that and, when done right, goes completely unnoticed by an audience. Did any one at the show last night notice the actors struggling with misplaced or unrealistic props? Did you notice them senselessly shift set pieces awkwardly to place them where they should have been to begin with? Cool, neither did I. (Good work Ida!)
The costume design, by Diana MacKinnon-Furlong, was spot on. Big-city Agnes makes every outfit fashionable with a killer leather jacket. Conservative Theresa could have easily been a woman wearing a big cross, but paired with the cozy sweaters and high cut shirts, she is clearly a nun. Casual Louise with her plaid and denim, still manages to look young and fresh despite being layered in loose clothing.
And, before I move on from the crew, I must give a Tip Of The Hat (pun intended) to Bob Lewandowski for prompting. Prompting is a repetitive, somewhat dull, and daunting task. Knowing Lewandowski, he approached the task with enthusiasm and high spirits. Considering the sharp and unhesitant dialogue, these women know their lines inside out.
The above mentioned wonderful things would be completely wasted, if not for a cast and director to match the crew in competency, talent, and a visible love of the work they’re doing. Lindsay Thompson captures the audience from her opening monologue. Delivered centre stage, with her arms stationary at her sides (except the final, desperate wave), she has only her face to rely on to convey the roller coaster of emotions that the dream creates, and she does it flawlessly. Thompson has a keen talent for playing conflicting emotions; her Agnes is both the toughest and most fragile, the funniest and the saddest, the most confident and most uneasy, of all three sisters. Bonnie MacLeod, as Theresa, is an assured and calm presence, with the exception of a handful of snapped lines and one gut-wrenching outburst (that caused an audience member behind me to say “wow” at full volume and everyone around us to nod in agreement). But that presence is only surface level, MacLeod uses her physicality (gently wringing her hands, stern posture, always wiping, folding, putting things away) to layer her performance and reveal her characters unease prior to the outburst. It’s like the charge in the air before a crash of lightning. Jenna Lahey as Louise is energetic, confident, and, of course, strange. It would be easy to play Louise as down and out, but Lahey’s performance is anything but. Both older sisters fuss over Louise (She seems strange, she is strange, she’s always been strange), but when we get her monologue, she repeats the sentiment, “I am strange,” with a big grin and a careless shrug, and that pretty much sums her up. Lahey’s Louise is the most stable of the three – good TV and a truck and she’s happy, Louise has got life figured out.
These three talented woman play off each other in a way that makes them undoubtedly believable as sisters, despite their many, many, many, differences. More than giving life to these three complex and intriguing characters, the cast gives life to an entire community around them. The central, but never seen, mother, the clueless girl at the flower shop, an ex-boyfriend, a possible lover, an absent father, and many more; a world surrounds them and each piece forms one great picture, a picture of home. To top the cake, (it’s not the icing, but definitely the sprinkles), the hilarious and melodramatic soap opera voiceover work by Todd Hiscock and Kerrianne MacKenzie creates something that is realistic (by soap opera terms) and a complete farce. This sound bites give the audience the same small escape that the fictional television show gives to the women in the play.
Todd Hiscock’s direction is impeccable. The high-paced and overlapping dialogue gives so much gravity to the pauses that the silences become as powerful as the beautifully written words. Even though it’s played in a tight(ish) space, the actors were never in each other’s way (unless they meant to be) and the focus was always in the right spot. His keen eye for world creation made the kitchen set as believable as a full two-storey house. The monologues were long and could have easily broken his carefully constructed tension, but the simplicity of the movement and spotlight gave us a naked and raw look at the inner workings of these characters.
As for the bridge itself, it is introduced as a memory at different times by each of the sisters, and each sister remembers it a little differently. As such, the bridge serves as a metaphor for how siblings raised in the same place by the same parents, still experience life very differently. There are so many parts to Marion Bridge that you will relate to as a Cape Bretoner, family members, or a person struggling to find their footing as life fails to turn out the way they expected it to. The show is funny, tragic, suspenseful, and comforting all in one compact, under-two-hour, display.
If you’ve come this far in my review and have retained nothing, please remember this one piece of advice: GO SEE THIS PLAY. It runs every Thursday night until August 10th as a part of the Highland Arts Theatre summer of plays. Marion Bridge also runs Monday nights at Strathspey Performing Arts Centre in Mabou until August 14.