BF23: Rachel Jones gets historical with the role of Johannah Donnelly
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Rachel Jones is back at the Blyth Festival for her second season and she’s here playing a role that is familiar to her, which is Donnelly family matriarch Johannah in The Donnellys: A Trilogy, written by James Reaney and adapted and abridged by Artistic Director Gil Garratt, who is also directing the three shows.
Jones remembers reading the plays as part of a Canadian literacy class as a student, but her connection to the story doesn’t end there. In fact, she has played Johannah before in a short play and had developed a relationship with Reaney over the years. He would come and see her in a play series in London, which she performed in for years. Then, eventually, Reaney would bring his son James Junior and she developed a relationship with him as well.
Jones said she was even part of a group that performed at Reaney’s memorial when he passed away in 2008.
Furthermore, Jones said she would research and explore the stories on her own with family members. Once, Jones said an aunt from Scotland came to visit her and she had become very interested in the Donnellys’ story, so they travelled to different spots tied to the history of the family.
To say Jones has done her homework for the role, even before she knew she’d be playing it, would be an understatement.
As for the plays, Jones says the first weeks of the rehearsal process have been very collaborative, which has fostered an interesting and fruitful creative environment.
She says the cast is incredible, with a mix of veterans and newcomers in a space in which everyone feels comfortable in speaking up, making suggestions and giving their opinions as the work comes together over the course of several weeks.
That level of creativity, dedication and enthusiasm, she said, is needed for what is a daunting and ambitious take on the Canadian staples. Producing Sticks and Stones, St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs all in one season, outdoors on the Harvest Stage, with one company, she said, is one of those projects that doesn’t come along every day.
Though she has played Johannah in a way before, Jones says that when we spoke, in late May, she was still working to find the character. As written, Johannah is many things. She is a good mother to her children and a loving and loyal wife to her husband James, Jones said, but some also find her intimidating, in addition to being caring and smart, so striking a balance of all of those attributes, she said, has been her first big task on the project.
Working alongside Canadian theatre titan Randy Hughson has been a big help in finding her character, Jones said. Hughson, who is playing Johannah’s husband James, says that James looks to his wife for her smarts, her courage and her convictions, thinking of it truly as a story of love and commitment and strength and Jones says she can see that in the character as well.
Jones’ history with Memorial Hall goes back nearly 15 years. She first performed in Blyth in the 2009-2010 range, she said, as a member of the Dufflebag Theatre group, which performed travelling children’s theatre throughout the province. However, it was as part of the 2019 season that she first performed with the Blyth Festival on the Memorial Hall stage in both Cakewalk and In the Wake of Wettlaufer. She said she was due to be part of the 2020 company as well, but that season was of course halted as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones said that throughout her first time with the Festival, she was so impressed with the connection between the community and the theatre. She said that theatre can often earn an unfair reputation as being stuffy and elitist, but that the work being done by the Festival and its relationship with its audience works to dispell that and ensure that the stories being told on stage are for everyone.
With that being said, she looks forward to being part of the cast of such a local story that is important to the community in which it’s being produced - truly the perfect spot for such an ambitious project to go ahead.
The Donnellys: A Trilogy will open on Saturday, June 24 with the premiere of Sticks and Stones, followed by St. Nicholas Hotel on Saturday, July 15 and Handcuffs on Thursday, Aug. 3. There will then be opportunities to see all three shows on consecutive nights several times throughout August as, after Handcuffs premieres, the shows will begin running in three-day clusters on Tuesday through Thursday and again on Friday through Sunday until Sunday, Sept. 3.