'St. Nicholas Hotel' continues powerful Donnelly tale at Blyth Festival
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The title of the first installment in The Donnellys: A Trilogy is Sticks and Stones, evoking the well-known, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” In St. Nicholas Hotel, it’s clear the hostility towards the Donnelly family has progressed beyond name-calling and petty disagreements.
First off, it must be said that this production of St. Nicholas Hotel was moved into Memorial Hall due to an impending thunderstorm. Many of the productions, planned for the Blyth Festival’s outdoor Harvest Stage, have been moved indoors as a result of the erratic weather of late. This contingency plan is new this year - in place of a simple cancellation of the show - and offers a modified version of the production.
The show follows the Donnelly children into adulthood as they make their own way through life, still in the unfriendly confines of London-area Lucan Biddulph, as they still find themselves in an adversarial relationship with those around them.
The story of St. Nicholas Hotel is far more tragic than its predecessor, though all of the seeds had been sown there in Sticks and Stones. We begin to lose members of the Donnelly family in St. Nicholas Hotel and this is where the multi-show format of the trilogy begins to pay off, as these are characters we have come to know and love, dating back to their origins in Sticks and Stones.
James Reaney has written plays with a deep understanding and affection for the Donnellys, as adapted and abridged by Artistic Director and the shows’ director Gil Garratt. So, we can’t help but side with them as they take on the seemingly never ending conflict with their neighbouring farmers.
The show begins with the famous stagecoach wars. The Donnellys and others were turning one dollar into two by ferrying people from the north to the south and back again. Meanwhile, a healthy mix of Irish feuding and straight-up business competition led to more than competing prices through an era of damaged coaches, injured and killed horses and stables being burned to the ground.
The recreation of stagecoach rides on stage is well done with trunks and a lot of physical acting that rings true even in the indoor setting. You really feel - pardon the pun - along for the ride as they travel past the township lines that made up their routes, going faster and faster as they race to destinations, determined to best one another.
These escapades only deepened the divide within the community, as the Donnellys continued to be no strangers to law enforcement.
As part of the natural progression of the shows, the younger generation of actors take centre stage in St. Nicholas Hotel. Randy Hughson and Rachel Jones - James and Johannah Donnelly - are used sparingly, though they shine when they are asked to step up. Hughson takes a particularly gruff and humorous turn as a hired private detective whose methods of research and infiltrating a community know no bounds.
Steven McCarthy as Will Donnelly, Mark Uhre as Michael Donnelly and Geoffrey Armour as James Donnelly Jr. all get their chances to shine as the next generation of Donnelly men take centre stage. Their notable and menacing presence in Sticks and Stones is now elevated in St. Nicholas Hotel, giving them a chance to really connect with the audiences through their characters and the challenging lives they ultimately lead as the years go on.
Masae Day is also a real standout in St. Nicholas Hotel as she shares both jubilation and heartbreak with the audience over the course of two-and-a-half hours. Her infectious smile and enthusiasm demands the audience crack and smile along with her, while, when she suffers loss, your heart can’t help but break for her.
As the story moves along, it’s clear that tension is building for the Donnellys. The “sticks and stones” of the first show and frequent conflicts associated with the stagecoach wars, religion and politics are clearly building to an outcome that will not be good for the Donnelly family. It’s hard not to feel the building dread.
Then, Armour’s James Carroll shows up and we know he’s someone we have to keep our eyes on, not just in this show, but in the show to come. He has vowed revenge and Armour’s menacing performance demands that the audience takes him seriously.
James Dallas Smith, Hallie Seline, Cam Laurie and Paul Dunn all do a great job filling out the ensemble, keeping the stage bustling and busy for the entire show.
Following the characters from show to show has been rewarding as well, and you can start to see the pay-off audiences will have when they see all three shows in three consecutive nights later this season. Even seeing Johannah Donnelly in her familiar dress from Sticks and Stones evoked a feeling of comfort and familiarity with characters we remember well from a few weeks earlier.
The storm clouds are gathering for the Donnellys and, from what we know from history, they are unlikely to break in favour of sunny skies as we approach the final of the three shows, Handcuffs, which begins early next month.
This is another stellar achievement from Garratt and company, as we reach the bloody middle of this local, historic epic. As we approach the end, with characters we’ve come to know so well, our minds can’t help but wonder, curious about what the final chapter of the story has to tell.
It’s great storytelling that both refers back to what came before it and hints at the story to come later - the challenge of the middle show in a trilogy - all while standing on its own as a monumental achievement - St. Nicholas Hotel won the prestigious Floyd. S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1975 - and a story wholly belonging to this area.
St. Nicholas Hotel continues alongside Sticks and Stones until Handcuffs premiers on Sunday, Aug. 6. 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.