They may sing tunefully and love their ma like crazy, but you wouldn’t want to mess with the Donnelly boys. They’re a potentially dangerous crew with a vigorous sense of survival, and in southern Ontario’s Biddulph Township circa the mid-19th century, that means one for all and all for one.
That spirit of family – especially a family under siege through no real fault of its own – is one of many themes raging like a river of blood through Vigilante, the extraordinarily powerful rock-opera by Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre now playing the NAC. Catalyst Theatre’s Jonathan Christenson wrote, composed and directed Vigilante, a dark, swaggering and occasionally vulnerable show that spirits the Black Donnellys and their fight for survival to the level of the epic without once losing sight of the fact that these are real people in a real world.
Taking theatrical licence with some of the facts, Christenson lends a mythic sweep to his version of the real-life Donnellys story by opening it in Ireland where the ever-optimistic James Donnelly (David Leyshon) locks eyes with danger by courting and winning the hand of the alluringly tough-shelled Johannah Magee (Jan Alexandra Smith), whose family is on the opposite side of James’ in one of those interminable secret Catholic society feuds that once scarred Ireland. Seeking a better life, the two immigrate to southern Ontario, where they commence farming and produce a crop of half a dozen fractious lads who are as hard-working as their parents. But there’s no escaping the tentacles of those old feuds. Soon the Donnellys and their prosperous farm, surrounded by jealous neighbours who also came from the old sod, are entangled in a escalating vortex of threats, fights, arson and, ultimately, the 1880 vigilante massacre of the family that remains unsolved to this day. (first posted on, April 3, 2017, artsfile.ca