Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

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

One suspects that the National Arts Centre’s production of The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams will have its greatest success with those playgoers who haven’t read the Wayne Johnston novel that inspired it.

Playwright Robert Chafe’s earnest, well-intentioned adaptation frequently manages to engage the viewer — although on a somewhat brittle level. But it lacks the epic sweep and emotional resonance of Johnston’s fictional recreation of the early life of legendary Newfoundland Premier Joseph Smallwood and his campaign to bring a proud but troubled island nation into Canada in 1949. Indeed, Jillian Keiley’s production, although revelling in fancy visuals and clever bits of business, never really communicates the high stakes involved in the countdown to Confederation. Given that the turbulent referendum vote required a second run-off, such lack of tension is astonishing

Not just astonishing — also perplexing, given the drama that engulfed so much of Joey Smallwood’s life and career. But it’s also fair to suggest that it must have been  a daunting challenge for Chafe even to try to get into the maddening, calculating mind of this so-called “last father of Confederation.” Wayne Johnston’s original attempt to do so in the novel went on for more than 500 pages, many of them devoted to Joey’s own first-person narrative. As tends to be the case with this type of memoir, whether true or fictional, you keep wondering how reliable the narrator really is — or, in this instance, is intended to be.

You’re still wondering about Smallwood’s true nature at the conclusion of Chafe’s dramatization, seen by this reviewer midway in its NAC run. You may also be pondering the irony of an evening in which its  most thoroughly “alive” character is a fictional one — a tart-tongued alcoholic journalist, Sheilagh Fielding by name, whose love-hate relationship with Joey. both politically and personally, raises some intriguing questions. However, as portrayed with witty, angular authority by Carmen Grant, this fabricated character’s  most interesting function is to serve as the acerbic conscience, not just of Smallwood, but of the embattled Rock itself.

Meanwhile, what of the real Smallwood? He’s an elusive enough creature in the Johnston novel — and indeed many of those closest to him in real life would later admit that they never really knew him —  but he becomes an exasperating cipher on the stage of the NAC Theatre. Weaving an element of mystery around the character of someone like Joey Smallwood might be a tantalizing device, but we don’t even get that from Colin Furlong’s bland, lettuce-limp performance. Horn-rimmed spectacles and a bow tie do not make the man, despite costume designer Marie Sharpe’s dutiful attention to the externals. We wait in vain for this actor to get beyond the ordinariness and find the charisma, the cunning, the moral passion, the energy and the ruthlessness of the reedy-voiced visionary who rose from poverty to lead islanders into some kind of promised land after suffering the ignominy of having lost their independent status within the Commonwealth.

Wayne Johnston was able to get away with filtering Smallwood through his personal prism in the novel. But on stage Joey is taking on a physical presence and voice, and all one needs to do is visit YouTube to hear and see the real person. And you can get an even deeper appreciation of this remarkable political animal if you go to the National Film Board website and take a look at The Little Fellow From Gambo, the NFB’s revealing and sometimes unsettling portrait of Newfoundland’s wheeler-dealer premier in his later years. The convention sequence in which Smallwood crushes an internal Liberal revolt led by John Crosbie — and yes, Crosbie was a Liberal in those days — pulsates with the kind of high drama sorely missing in The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams.

In adapting the book, Robert Chafe needed to be merciless. Hence large chunks of the story are gone. Still, it’s sad to be deprived of what many would see as the novel’s most memorable sequence — labour organizer Smallwood’s legendary 1925 walk across the island to sign up the railway workers. Chafe leans more to providing us with a series of dramatic snapshots, some of which work well, despite the frequent failure of the production to establish  a comfortable rhythm.

There are, however, problems with exposition, especially with a section having to do with a crucial event in Smallwood’s earlier years, an event that should have greater dramatic pay-off than it does when it comes back to haunt him late in the play. There are also shallowly conceived scenes that in some instances invite caricature rather than full-blooded characterizations — witness Jody Richardson’s operatics as Newfoundland’s floundering prime minister, Sir Richard Squires, and Alison Woolridge’s mannered posturing as his lady. In other instances, Charlie Tomlinson’s reading of Canada’s prime minister, MacKenzie King, manages the feat of making the man even duller than historians claim him to have been in real life. But Steve McConnell does manage to inject some emotional truth into the role of Joey’s father, a tattered specimen who warns his son of the perils of loving country too intensely. And there is a marvellously crafted scene, its naturalistic power coming from understatement, which sees a weary but driven Smallwood engaged in a wintry discussion with a phlegmatic citizen from the outports (an outstanding cameo from Paul Rowe) about the state of the island’s soul.

Shawn Kerwin’s spare settings and Leigh Vardy’s brilliant lighting are responsive to the demands of the material. And, as always director Jillian Keiley’s sense of the visual is ready to help define the production. Falling snow is a recurring presence — even a ghostly metaphor of times past — and there’s a simple dramatic beauty in the sight of an impoverished youngster sweeping it away from the path of those superior to him. On the other hand, there’s a less welcome sequence when Keiley sends two desks flying about the stage amidst a blizzard of words — and yes the snow is falling. It’s her way of showing what happens when Smallwood, the political broadcaster, and, the outspoken newspaper columnist, square off against each other in a battle that is much personal as it is public. It’s the sort of scene that draws attention to the director more than it does to the play itself — but some playgoers do love this sort of thing.

Smallwood biographer Richard Gwyn, who knew his subject well, wrote of a man who was a “folk hero, part rustic savant, part licensed national jester.”  And of course, Smallwood was a lot more than that, and there’s great dramatic potential in his driven and sometimes roguish pursuit of  his destiny. So are we getting unrequited dreams here? Not really. In dramatic terms, unfulfilled promise.


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