Blyth Festival's Donnelly trilogy concludes with 'Handcuffs'
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Remember when Titanic was the biggest movie in the world? It made over one billion dollars and yet, we all knew how it would end: the boat sinks.
Actor J.D. Smith addresses this as he sets the stage for Handcuffs with a quick, real-time prologue. Speaking directly to the audience, he calls them out for paying for their tickets and making the trip to Blyth (even enjoying dinner and a drink beforehand) for what? To see the Donnellys die - that’s what.
The story of the Donnelly family only ends one way and it’s been that way for almost 150 years. The slaughter of the Donnellys began in St. Nicholas Hotel, the second installment in The Donnellys: A Trilogy by the late James Reaney, but in Handcuffs, we all knew we’d arrive at that fateful night in February of 1880 when the Donnelly home was set ablaze with several members inside the house.
It is a true story after all, so we also know that no one ever does pay for the crimes, which makes what we’re about to see happen to these characters, who we’ve come to know and understand over the past two shows, that much more tragic.
Producing the shows in three-night groupings is a smart move. Not only is it efficient and economical for the Blyth Festival, bringing people to Blyth to see the entire saga over the course of three nights, but it’s hard to imagine audience members not being caught up in the world of the Donnellys. The recurring characters, consistent themes and callbacks to previous shows surely all pay off seeing the shows back-to-back-to-back.
Furthermore, as a classic pot-boiler of a drama leading to an explosive and tragic conclusion, the tension must ratchet up each night in a relentless manner, as opposed to the experience of viewers who have a few weeks to decompress before taking another step in the Donnellys’ journey.
Handcuffs returns us to familiar territory for those who have seen Sticks and Stones and St. Nicholas Hotel.
The Donnellys are still a problem for everyone in the community - it seems - for their political leanings and their behaviour. They continue to fight back against those who would tell them how to vote, how to run their operation and the company they should keep.
Jim and Johannah Donnelly and their children remain steadfast in their convictions, insisting that they are free to do as they please and think as they wish in a country as free as Canada. (Jim has, over the course of the three shows, often lamented the bad old days in Ireland, thinking he had left them behind, only to find they followed the family to southwestern Ontario from Ireland.)
And, as neighbours have insisted that the Donnellys bend to their will and fall in line, it’s become clear that won’t be an option and the members of the community seek to break the Donnellys if they will not bend.
Several pieces of the puzzle fall into place, spelling disaster for the Donnellys. James Carroll, who despises the Donnellys, is handed a high level of power and even the Catholic Church has come on board, seemingly lending its support to putting an end to the Donnelly family’s failure to play ball once and for all.
The days of music and humour (for the most part) are behind us in the world of Handcuffs. The tragic end of the Donnellys trilogy is no place for it.
Masae Day is the first to step on the stage (after Smith’s direct address to the audience) just as she stepped off the boat from Tipperary, Ireland to come and be with the Donnellys. She’s a young relative who has no idea what she’s walking into.
The entire cast is fantastic and it’s hard, as an audience member, to not feel as though you’ve all embarked on this long, tragic journey together.
Geoffrey Armour’s Carroll has been building up steam since the closing minutes of St. Nicholas Hotel. Even if you didn’t know the historical context of his character, it’s clear to see that he would be a person of interest in Handcuffs, sure to spell some sort of trouble for the Donnellys. He was motivated, angry and willing to do what he felt was necessary to get rid of the Donnellys, which is a much different energy than the community members who would taunt or badger the Donnellys after too much drink at a local bar.
It’s heartbreaking to see Jim and Johannah on the stage, after all the loss they had already suffered, knowing there was more to come. Thinking back to the early days of Sticks and Stones, as an idealistic young family with just one young son, it’s hard not to get angry when you see their world come crashing down on them, finally.
And, with the inevitable conclusion just around the corner, it’s tough to watch the Donnellys plot and plan to defend what is theirs once and for all, knowing that their best laid plans will not make any difference to their fate.
The Donnellys: A Trilogy is a true triumph in the lineage of some of the Festival’s best work. As an institution that has championed the creation of original Canadian plays and the telling of local stories, the marriage between it and the work of Reaney, who was also at the forefront of this idea, just in his own way, is a perfect match.
The great experiment of producing all three shows in one season should be remembered as a success along the lines of some of the Festival’s best spectacles.
Furthermore, the shows, produced in this manner, brought to life by Artistic Director Gil Garratt and this fantastic cast, should serve as a history lesson and a reminder of the importance of Canadian stories.
On opening night, members of the Reaney family were in attendance to see the work of their father on stage once again. Garratt made a note of that to audience members. To think of the work done by people like Reaney, Paul Thompson (with more than one Donnelly play under his belt) and others in the early 1970s, lead to Keith Roulston, Anne Chislett and James Roy founding the Blyth Festival. Next year, the Festival will produce its 50th season.
What a celebration of the art of Canadian storytelling - an affirmation of the hard work, creativity and dedication that so many have worked towards all those years ago.
The Donnellys: A Trilogy is truly the Blyth Festival at its best.