Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Photo: Colin Furlong as Joey Smallwood. Credit: Paul Daly

Joey Smallwood, the diminutive guy who led Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949:  with a subject like that, audience members for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams could be forgiven for fearing an evening of excruciating boredom.

They would also be proven dead wrong.

Adapted by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s celebrated 1998 historical novel of the same name, the play is an enthralling glimpse into the heart of the earnest and tenacious Smallwood, into the soul of his beloved Newfoundland, and into Smallwood’s complicated relationship with a caustic newspaper columnist named Sheilagh Fielding.

Directed here by Jillian Keiley (herself a native Newfoundlander) with especially thoughtful attention to pacing, the story hums along so fluidly that you’re scarcely aware that three hours have elapsed when Smallwood finally attains his dream, Fielding reaches a goal of a different kind, and issues of identity, family, love and loneliness settle into their ultimately unresolvable conclusion.

Politics and the personal are inextricably woven together in this show’s vision of Joey Smallwood, played with a buoyant sense of mission, principle and rabble-rousing fearlessness by Colin Furlong. We meet Smallwood when he is a young man determined to carve out an influential place for himself in a Newfoundland where the old boys’ network and corruption are endemic in government. Doubtless partly in reaction to his father (Steve O‘Connell), an alcoholic whose life is a string of might-have-beens, Smallwood never meets a challenge that he won’t wade into like an up-and-coming welterweight.

One of his biggest challenges as he tries on different jobs for size – union advocate, newspaper man and radio broadcaster among them – is Fielding. Played by the excellent Carmen Grant with trigger-happy combativeness and a flair for the skewering phrase, Fielding goads Smallwood toward greater things just by being who she is. He, in turn, shoulders aside the exasperation of dealing with such a prickly character to show love and concern when Fielding, who harbours a deep secret, is at her most desperate.

Their rancorous and sometimes very funny relationship is very much the one between Canada and Newfoundland, and it’s clear that that relationship was destined from the outset to be as rocky as the coastline of Newfoundland depicted in the show’s backdrop.

Swirling around these two are political figures, family members and ordinary Newfoundlanders played by eight other cast members (ten if you count the two young actors alternating in the minor role of a young boy, but who, unaccountably, get no mention in the program).

Interactions between Smallwood and these other folks yield some memorable vignettes including one in which Smallwood, spreading the gospel of unionization, visits an outport fisherman named Andrews (Paul Rowe) at the latter’s barebones home. Andrews hasn’t a clue as to what’s going on in the outside world nor does he much care – and why should he, in a pre-Internet age and a part of the world where life, tougher than we could ever imagine, may consist of little other than getting by each day? “That’s home for you, Joe, where your dead is buried,” he says to Smallwood at one point, a vivid reminder to his dream-focused guest of what’s important in life.

Composer Patrick Boyle’s pointed jazz accompaniment, Leigh Ann Vardy’s subtle light design, Shawn Kerwin’s stark set: all dovetail with Johnston’s exploration of a key moment in his province’s history and with the characters, both real and imagined, who helped birth it into fractious being while dealing with their own, tangled lives and relationships.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

An Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production in collaboration with NAC English Theatre

Based on the novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Adapted for the stage by Robert Chafe

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Cast: Colin Furlong, Carmen Grant, Darryl Hopkins, Willow Kean, Brian Marler, Steve O’Connell, Jody Richardson, Paul Rowe, Charlie Tomlinson, Alison Woolridge, David Corrigan, Bennett Van Barr

Composer: Patrick Boyle

Set designer: Shawn Kerwin

Costume designer: Marie Sharpe

Lighting designer: Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound designer: Don Ellis

At the National Arts Centre, Jan. 25-Feb. 11