BF23: Reaney family lends full support to Blyth's Donnellys project
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnelly family - Sticks and Stones, St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs - are regarded by many as some of the most important Canadian plays ever written. However, they’re only part of the Reaney family legacy in the world of Canadian writing.
Reaney, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 81, thrice won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama - in 1949 for The Red Heart, 1958 for A Suit of Nettles and 1962 for Twelve Letters to a Small Town and The Killdeer and Other Plays - in addition to earning honorary doctorates from Carleton University, McMaster University, Brock University and the University of Western Ontario, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and being invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
He also pioneered a style of writing known as “Southern Ontario Gothic” that has been said to be inspirational to renowned Canadian authors like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.
His wife, Colleen Thibaudeau, was also a renowned Canadian author and poet for whom The League of Canadian Poets has established a literary award in her name. She passed away in 2012.
Their legacy has continued with their children James Junior and Susan, who have both carved out successful and influential writing careers on their own. (James and Colleen’s middle child, John, died from a sudden meningitis attack in 1966.) Both are retired now, but Susan spent her life copywriting and editing before now maintaining websites dedicated to the writing and legacies of her parents, while James Junior spent much of his career as a reporter for The London Free Press. (His favourite years were spent documenting the city’s music scene.)
Reaney’s work as a playwright began in earnest with The Killdeer, a play that earned him national renown. He would then pen a handful of other plays in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with Colours in the Dark being produced at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the late 1960s.
Then, from 1973 to 1975, Reaney wrote his three plays on the Donnelly family. All three would premiere at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, with St. Nicholas Hotel, the second in the trilogy, winning the Chalmers Award, which was only handed out annually between the years of 1973 and 2001.
In a Zoom interview with James Junior, who lives in London, and Susan, who lives in British Columbia, The Citizen spoke about Reaney’s legacy and the pair’s excitement with the plays being produced at the Blyth Festival.
James Junior is no stranger to the Blyth Festival, having attended many plays over the years, as recently as The Drawer Boy last year on the Harvest Stage. He has also written about several of the Festival’s plays over the years.
Susan and James Junior said they were both equally enthusiastic to have a similar meeting with Artistic Director Gil Garratt when he expressed his interest in producing all three plays in the same season with the same cast. They felt a connection to Garratt’s enthusiasm for the project and his familiarity with the Donnellys, working many times on projects with Canadian theatre icon Paul Thompson and starring in the one-man The Last Donnelly Standing in 2016, directed by Thompson.
“I was very impressed with his sincerity and passion and his interest in the plays,” Susan said. James Junior agreed, saying he found it so exciting that Garratt wanted to take on all three plays in the same season, producing them outdoors and directing them himself.
He also noted the deep reverence he has for the Festival, listing a number of plays produced in recent years but singling out In the Wake of Wettlaufer as an important, timely and affecting show.
Susan says she was a teenager when Reaney wrote the Donnellys plays, but she remembers attending some of the rehearsals and she said it was a magical experience in Toronto for a young girl to experience at such an exciting time for Canadian theatre.
She said her father became interested in the Donnellys because of the depth and intrigue of the story that played out just miles from where he grew up. Reaney was then further influenced by Orlo Miller’s book, The Donnellys Must Die, which is commonly regarded as the definitive book on the tale, heralded for its humanity and historical accuracy when compared to more salacious books that had come before it.
Reaney would work with Miller in developing the plays, gaining access to his extensive notes through his work at Western.
It then became Reaney’s singular creative focus, the pair said, with James Junior even remembering a detour the family took during a trip to British Columbia to locate James Carroll’s grave. Carroll was said to be the ringleader of the mob that killed the Donnellys and Reaney had heard he was buried near where the family was visiting. They apparently bushwhacked through some forest and never did find what Reaney was looking for, but, for the children at least, the trip was a memorable one.
And while both children hold their parents’ work up on a pedestal, they both agree that they’re comfortable handing it over to Garratt for this project, feeling as though their father’s work is in safe, caring hands. Garratt and his cast will be abridging the plays and perhaps updating them as the rehearsal process goes on and Susan and James Junior have confidence that Garratt and his team will do right by them.
Both James Junior and Susan plan to take in the plays themselves and Susan hopes people will come away with a sense of history after seeing them.
Visit jamesreaney.com for more information on his writing and colleenthibaudeau.com for more information on her writing.
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.