BF23: Nora McLellan, theatre legend, returns to Blyth for 'Liars at a Funeral'
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
Anchoring the comedy side of the Blyth Festival this season is Liars at a Funeral - the story of a grandmother faking her own death in an attempt to reunite her dysfunctional family. Full of misunderstandings and misdirection, this classic farce by Sophia Fabiilli was first staged in 2017. For the show’s first production in Blyth, Liars at a Funeral is directed by Krista Jackson, and stars Nora McLellan in the role of matriarch Mavis.
Vancouver-born McLellan currently lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and has long been an actor of stage and screen. She’s performed on stages across Canada, including shows at Stratford and over 20 seasons at the Shaw Festival. McLellan has acted in television shows like Orphan Black, Strays, and Son of a Critch. “I’ve done all kinds of roles,” said McLellan. “I get asked to do comedies more. I’m just grateful to be asked - I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and I’m glad to be able to continue.”
Her upcoming turn as Mavis is one that’s been a long time coming. Liars at a Funeral was originally slated to open the Blyth Festival’s 2020 season, with McLellan as Mavis, but the show was cancelled in the onset of the pandemic. When the Festival started planning for the 2023 season, organizers decided to give Liars another chance. It wasn’t hard to convince McLellan to try again. “Gil contacted me and asked if I wanted to give it another shot, and that just sounded fabulous to me… I’m very excited to work with Krista Jackson, and the play is a lovely play. And I love getting to explore this area of Ontario.” The show will finally be opening at Memorial Hall on June 14.
Right now McLellan is busy preparing for her turn as the meddling matriarch Mavis. “I don’t think Mavis and I are very far apart, but who knows? That’s for the director, writer and designer to decide.”
Learning about how all the pieces fit together is one of McLellan’s favourite parts of performing. “I enjoy digging around and looking for things in the script that give little clues as to what might be going on in the mind of a character - detective work I guess you could call it… Liars at a Funeral has a little bit of a serious undertone at the core of it.” McLellan is excited to explore that core with the rest of the cast and crew in the weeks leading up to opening night.
There are a number of characters surrounding the titular funeral, and many of them are portrayed by actors in dual roles. Lucy Hill plays Dee Dee and Mia, Justin Otto is playing Quint and Cam, Amy Rutherford is both Leorah and Evelyn, and Blair Williams will perform as Frank and Wayne. While McLellan is billed only as Mavis for this production, she has had experience playing two parts before. “It’s a fun challenge. All of the characters in this show are different, as well. Maybe it’s not so much of a challenge as it is just fun.”
This is McLellan’s second time performing in Blyth. She was last here in 2016, when she wowed audiences with her portrayal of Gail in Mark Crawford’s The Birds and the Bees. That show had the distinction of being the Festival’s 200th production, and its 125th world premiere. “It was the best time… it’s hard to describe that summer - it was just magical,” she recalled.
Much has changed in Blyth since McLellan was here in 2016 - the addition that she is most excited for is the recently-constructed Harvest Stage. The permanent, fully-accessible, open-air amphitheatre was constructed during the pandemic. “Bravo to Gil and company for the ‘Field of Dreams’ theatre there - ‘if you build it, they will come.’ I just love that he is so passionate and filled with ideas.” This year, the Harvest Stage will be hosting The Donnellys: A Trilogy, written by James Reaney and abridged by Gil Garratt.
What is McLellan excited about for her time working at the Festival this year? “I’m really looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and meeting some new faces, and I get to spend two months in Blyth, Ontario, which is a gift. And there’s just nothing better than being on stage. It’s the live connection between the actors, and the audience, and so many people working in the moment, and before. And when you’re in a comedy, the laughter… it’s just the best gig.”
See Nora McLellan as Mavis in Liars at a Funeral, from June 14 to July 8 at Memorial Hall Theatre. Tickets are available online at blythfestival.com, by phone at 1-877-862-5984, or in-person at the Blyth Festival box office.