Paul Love, Associate Toronto Critic
It could easily be argued that Robert Chafe knows how to write about Newfoundland and Labrador better than any other playwright. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he was born and raised there, and has contributed a great deal to theatre and culture in the province as a writer and as an actor. I had the unique experience of spending a week in the wilds of Labrador as part of a student exchange program in high school, and the only thing that struck me more than the incredible beauty of the landscape was the warm, welcoming nature of the people who call Newfoundland and Labrador home. It is this nature that is nestled at the heart of Chafe’s first play, Tempting Providence, which is being performed in Port Perry as part of Theatre on the Ridge’s 2019 summer festival.
Before going any further, it is proper etiquette for me to mention that the performance I attended was a preview; however, you wouldn’t know it considering how polished and tight the production was.
Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey mentions, in her director’s notes, the decision to add two musicians that are “not explicitly called for in the original play,” but ultimately add much to the overall production. The two musicians, Manon Ens-Lapointe and Michael Williamson, entertain the audience in the Patron’s Lounge with some high-energy pre-show folk music, cleverly setting the tone and the mood for the story that is about to unfold. When the lights go down, our two musicians and all but one cast member make their way up the centre aisle, warmly greeting the audience members as they make their way to the stage. The final cast member, a young woman, is much more reserved. She is cautious. She is curious about her surroundings as walks to the stage alone. The essence of Tempting Providence has been established before a single line of dialogue has been spoken. Masterful.
That young woman, Myra Grimsley, is a British nurse who, after World War I had ended, wanted to go some place where help was truly needed, and so she found herself in a Newfoundland community so remote that there were no roads leading to or from it. We know from historical record that Myra was passionate and resourceful about her work, and Frances Loiselle does a fantastic job of embodying her spirit. Ms. Loiselle commands the stage without force, creating a Myra who has a self-assured, no-nonsense demeanor when she is working, but often guarded and unsure of herself in more social and intimate moments with others. To see Ms. Loiselle seamlessly weave back and forth between these two sides of her personality is marvelous. Her clipped, clearly enunciated British accent plays wonderfully against the Newfoundlander accents performed by her castmates.
Duncan Gibson-Lockhart’s portrayal of Angus Bennett, the man who would become Myra’s husband, is kind-hearted and easygoing. Mr. Gibson-Lockhart has a talent for portraying true vulnerability, which makes the audience root for him almost from the start. His Newfoundlander accent is solid and only adds to the realness of his character.
Performing the roles of a number of the townspeople, Demi-Lee Bainbridge and Daniel McCormack add depth and humour to the proceedings. Mr. McCormack emotes expressively and can change the mood of a scene without saying a word. Ms. Bainbridge adds a burst of high energy to her characters, really cultivating some of the funniest moments of the show, and plays her unrestrained exuberance well against Ms. Loiselle’s calm, controlled Myra.
Ms. Lambermont-Morey deserves kudos for her staging of this production. Having all the actors — the two musicians included — remain onstage at all times was a brilliant choice; having the performers who are not a part of the scene sitting and standing off to the side, but watching the action closely, creates a microcosm of a small-town atmosphere — nobody does or says anything without everyone in town knowing about it. And in the few scenes where Myra and Angus were talking together and the other performers were turned away, that contrast made the scene feel much more intimate.
Set and Production Designer Carey Nicholson deserves credit for doing so much with so little. Who knew that a table and a couple of chairs could be a medical office and a horse-drawn sleigh, as well as somebody’s kitchen furniture?
I’m not sure if it was Ms. Lambermont-Morey, Ms. Nicholson, or someone else, but whoever thought of that wonderfully effective way of staging someone lying in bed deserves a gold star. Absolutely brilliant.
If you feel like learning about the incredible woman who was known as “The Florence Nightingale of Newfoundland,” or you’re in the mood for a solid piece of theatre, head to Port Perry to see Theatre on the Ridge’s production of Tempting Providence.
Photo of Frances Loiselle provided by Barry McCluskey.
The show is being staged at the historic Town Hall 1873 in Port Perry, 302 Queen St. Remaining performances are July 20, 23, 24, and 26 at 7:30 pm, and July 27 at 2 pm.
For more information, visit www.theatreontheridge.ca.
The show is approximately 95 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.