Walking into the theatre, one is struck by Marshall McMahen’s two sweeping sheer fabric clouds, one slightly upstage of the other. Downstage left is a shelf of layered rock that can serve as a floor, a step or secluded hiding place. During the play Jeff Harrison’s lighting brings trees and sunsets to life in the clouds and creates windows of light that put you in a church or a secret room. It is a hint to what this play will be: simple but layered, honest, moving and profoundly beautiful.
It is rare to see a musical that has the story, the lyrics and the music written by a single author. Corey Payette has done that and he has directed the production as well. It is a daunting and brave undertaking that can end in disaster or be a miraculous triumph. I was not there to see it develop but I would imagine that it took trust and belief in the creative team and patience. The end result is a musical unlike any other, that is as more of an experience than a play.
The play explores the impact of residential schools in the form of flashbacks to the children who lived it. Having the characters move from their adult to childhood selves illustrates the struggle of dealing with the historical legacy. There is an elementary organic building of the story that is interesting enough to hold your attention certainly, but two thirds into the first half you have no idea how hard you are about to be hit when the full power of the cast and the orchestra is unleashed on you.
The scenes seamlessly shift back and forth from present to past. This is achieved through the fluid movement direction of Raes Calvert that allows set pieces to swirl in and back out again and time and place to change in an instant. Similarly the songs grow out of the action as naturally as breathing in and exhaling without the conventional set-ups of standard musical theatre fare.
Herbie Baines as Tommy (Tom as an adult) wants to do the right thing and he wants more than anything to be with his family. There is a naivety and a mischievousness in the performance that captures you. His sister Julia played by Cheyenne Scott with a graceful sadness wants the same thing as Tommy and bravely tries to escape but the punishments are unbearable.
Kevin Loring is a shit disturber in the role of Wilson but ultimately he conforms to the white man’s way. Loring masters the performance by not being over the top and by allowing glimpses of his true self to seep out. In the end it the roles Wilson adopts are just tools for survival. His brother Vince is affected by a nervous stammer. Aaron M. Wells gives Vince a gentleness that helps you understand the impossible misery he feels.
Kim Harvey and Kaitlyn Yott as Joanna and Elizabeth round out the cast of children. They perform the excitement and shock of girls at Julia’s attempted escape and exchange confidences as all young people do.
Michael Torontow as Father Christopher is not a cardboard villain. He truly wants to do god’s will but believes there is only one path and cannot deal with his own history of abuse. You still don’t like him but Torontow’s performance allows you to understand him. Trish Lindström as Sister Bernadette instinctively knows the right path but varies from it to conform to the parochial norm but believably plays with a thin veil over her compassion so that her act of redemption does not spring out of the blue.
Cathy Elliott as Rita plays a mother who has had her children wrenched from her and now has got to try to make that relationship work with an adult son. As the elder she also leads the cast in the drum song at the climax of the play.
I had no idea how they were going to have an ending as dramatically powerful as the end of the first act, but they somehow managed to top it. It was at once exhilarating and exhausting. This is likely the most powerful piece of theatre you will see this year. There were people that were struggling to walk up the aisle they were so overcome with emotion.
I do not know enough of the indigenous teachings as a son of white privilege to comment on all of the spirituality of the play. When the call went out to the four directions I did not understand the words but I felt them. The beauty of this work is that it is a commentary on humanity and the evil we do to each other. If we are to celebrate the wonderful things that we accomplish, the very least we can do is be honest about our sins and recognize our crimes and our mistakes. It is a step toward healing if we can all acknowledge it.
Aaron M. Wells
Corey Payette Bookwriter/Composer/Lyricist/ Director
Marshal McMahen Production Designer
Allen Cole Musical Director/Piano
Elliot Vaughan Orchestra/Viola
Sybille Pearson Dramaturg
Julie McIsaac Associate Director
Jeff Harrison Lighting Designer
Raes Calvert Movement Director
Kris Boyd Sound Designer
Mike Kovac Co-Fight Director