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Francine Deschepper & Gil Garratt  Photo:Andree Lanthier
Francine Deschepper & Gil Garratt Photo:Andree Lanthier

Theatre Review: "The Glace Bay Miners' Museum" at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa

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"The Glace Bay Miners' Museum" has opened the English Theatre season at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and runs through November 3. Based on the short story by Sheldon Currie, Wendy Lill's play follows the fortunes of the MacNeil family, as they struggle to make a living in the coal-mining town.

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Reported by

Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

THE GLACE BAY MINERS’ MUSEUM by Wendy Lill, based on the short story by Sheldon Currie, is set in Glace Bay on the east coast of Nova Scotia during the years following World War II.  It’s a town supported by coal mining with its dangerous working conditions, lung disease and the early struggle toward unionization.  The MacNeil family is trapped in a routine of squabbles and toil when young Margaret meets Neil Currie.  Although without job prospects, Neil’s music and love of life, (not to mention his love of Margaret), is a catalyst for change in the family dynamics.

Sue LePage’s set is impressive at first glance, with a series of weathered wooden platforms and steps sweeping stage right up to a house at the top.  Nestled under one of the platforms stage left is the very realistic MacNeil house.  We see only the bedroom and the combination living room and kitchen.  However the set is uncomfortable to play on, as the MacNeil home has only one apparent exit to the outdoors which creates some awkward blocking.  It also keeps us shifting from naturalistic realism in the interior scenes to the much more imaginative and non-realistic exterior ones, preventing the smooth flow of the material and action.

Leigh Ann Vardy’s magical lighting adds a great deal to the production, in particular the Act I dawn effect and the Act I and Act II openings.  Paul Cram’s sound is delicate and effective, as is the music, arranged from traditional tunes.  I especially liked the use of penny whistle with cello.

This is a strong and balanced cast.  Martha Irving makes a solid Catherine, the disillusioned mother in this contentious household.  When she finally reveals her youthful and playful side, it’s a lovely transformation.  As her dour and proudly pro-union son Ian, Jeff  Schwager does a nice job of gradually revealing his inner self, especially during the beached whale scene.  David Francis is terrific as Grandpa with his refusal to speak and soup can exercises.  His eyes have a twinkle that reaches to the farthest seat in the theatre.

Gil Garratt does a fine job as the ne’er-do-well Irishman Neil.  Not only does he subtly reveal the gradual growth and change in the character, he’s also a fine musician playing bagpipes, fiddle and even penny whistle.  Francine Deschepper gives a wonderful performance as Margaret, allowing us to see her growing maturity.  Only in retrospect can we see her youthful instability.  Her Act II monologue is chilling in its power.

Director Mary Vingoe has done a nice job of helping her excellent cast reveal all the facets of these complex characters.  However as I said, some of the blocking is awkward and there’s a lack of flow in the production.  For some reason the play never quite jells.

That said, this is a strong play with interesting and three-dimensional characters.  It builds to an unexpected climax that, by the way, fully explains the title.  THE GLACE BAY MINERS’ MUSEUM is a promising opener for the season at the NAC.

On a scale of one to five the NAC English Theatre/Neptune Theatre’s co-production of THE GLACE BAY MINERS’ MUSEUM gets four and one third Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.

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