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Jack Weatherall (left) as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Geordie Johnson as Walt Whitman
Jack Weatherall (left) as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Geordie Johnson as Walt Whitman

Theatre Review: Democracy at the Great Canadian Theatre Co., Ottawa

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The play Democracy runs at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa through February 12. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng attended a recent performance and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

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DEMOCRACY: one whole day beside a pond by John Murrell is set during the American Civil War and depicts a debate between two great thinkers - Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The differing philosophies of these two old friends have become divisive.  As they debate the nature of beauty and truth in front of two young soldiers, the war rages just beyond the seclusion of the woodland pond.  On this hot July day Whitman and Emerson are struggling to find a way to come to terms with and heal the wounds of the war; the war Whitman refers to as, "the fury that gnaws at this nation's great heart."

The technical production of DEMOCRACY is excellent.  Designer Kim Neilson has framed the proscenium with twisted willow trunks hung with abstract leaves.  The pond center stage is framed by tall grasses and is large enough for wading and even swimming.  The upstage scrim provides a perfect palette for Jock Munro's splendid lighting.  The reflections of the ripples on the pond, the slanted light of dawn and particularly the evening light and shadows are all quite magical.  Jon Carter provides not only well-chosen music, but also a terrific soundscape of field noises with all kinds of birds and insects.

The cast of DEMOCRACY is uniformly strong.  Aaron Forward is good as Pete, the ingenuous young deserter who's been taken in by Whitman.  He also handles the nude swimming scene with aplomb.  As Jimmy, a blind and wounded soldier, Matthew MacFadzean is also very good.  He clearly conveys Jimmy's youthful hopefulness and his almost instinctive understanding of Emerson's and Whitman's debate.

Geordie Johnson is a joyful exuberant Whitman.  This makes his quiet and tender moments more powerful by contrast.  As Emerson Jack Weatherall is wonderful, especially in his Act II monologue.  Mr. Weatherall gives us a fully rounded portrayal of this troubled intellectual who feels that, quote, "Flesh without an idea can become monstrous."

Director Stewart Arnott has done a fine job of bringing this play with its human moments and its complexity of ideas to life.  DEMOCRACY is a demanding play for both the actors and the audience, and not everyone's glass of beer.  However its thoughtful ideas, wonderful language and powerful emotions are reward enough.  The play lingers in the mind long after the final blackout.

On a scale of one to five the GCTC production of DEMOCRACY gets four and seven-eighths pizzas.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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