Stage Door Review 2023

Fall on Your Knees, Parts 1 & 2

Friday, February 3, 2023


by Hannah Moscovitch and Alisa Palmer, directed by Alisa Palmer

National Arts Centre, Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage, Neptune Theatre & Grand Theatre London, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

January 26-February 4, 2023;

 • Neptune Theatre, Halifax

February 10-March 5, 2023;

 • National Arts Centre, Ottawa

March 8-25, 2023;

 • Grand Theatre, London

March 29-April 2, 2023

“Memory plays tricks. Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable”

Five theatre companies have come together to bring Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1996 novel Fall on Your Knees to the stage. The play comprising two three-hour parts has been in development for five years and has finally had its world premiere in Toronto. It would be a pleasure to say that all the time and effort put into this project was worth the end result, but that is not the case. Part 1 is a collection of short episodes that do not build in tension and seem to be heading nowhere. Part 2, however, does have an authentic dramatic core and should have been made into a stand-alone play.

As a novel Fall on Your Knees may have received awards and commendations, but it is, in fact, a problematic work. The book relies for what little tension it has on the author’s withholding of key information until almost the chapter. This means that Books 1-5 of the novel, which are the focus of Part 1 of the play, are entirely episodic. The information we need to know to understand the events of Books 1-5 does not appear until Books 6-9, which are the focus of Part 2 of the play. Kathleen’s diary, which makes up Book 8, is the most important section of the novel. Unlike all the others, it is written in the first person and describes not only Kathleen’s experiences in New York City but her reflections upon them. The diary highlights what has been missing from the majority of the narrative, i.e., reflection. MacDonald gives us a cascade of incidents but only rarely does she give us any clue of what the characters think of these events.

MacDonald’s strategy is to withhold the identity of the novel’s narrator until the book’s final page. Once we learn this we should also realize that the narrator, Lily, has had all the knowledge in her possession from the beginning to tell the story without withholding the key information of Kathleen’s diary. This should make us see with what incredible artifice Lilly and through Lily, MacDonald, has written the novel.

If Fall on Your Knees were a mystery by Agatha Christie where new information comes to light at the very last moment to expose a murderer, we might be able to accept such deception. Christie’s mysteries are so plot-driven that we keep reading in order to discover the solution of the puzzle she has posed.

In contrast, Fall on Your Knees is not put forward as a mystery novel but as a family chronicle. It is therefore bizarre, to say the least, that the person relating the story of the Piper family deliberately refuses to give us the information we need to understand the action when that action occurs.

The flaw in the play of Fall on Your Knees, as happens far too often in stage adaptations of novels, is that it follows the structure of MacDonald’s novel and makes the negative consequences of withholding information even more apparent. In the play we know from the start that Lily is the narrator. The first line of the play and the book is “They’re all dead now”, a statement that ought to indicate to us that everything we will learn of is already in the past. That means that the artificiality of what is told when is not that of a family chronicler at all but of an author who simply for effect wishes to delay her explosions of major revelations until the very end.

The result of following MacDonald’s structure means that in Part 1: The Family Tree of the play Hannah Moscovitch and Alisa Palmer have created three hours of episodic theatre with no throughline and no hint of what, if anything these episodes are leading up to.

A huge number of episodes unfold without any indication of which are and are not important. Part 1 begins on Cape Breton Island in 1898 on when James Piper, a self-taught piano tuner of a Scots and Irish background, meets Materia, the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese family. James, 18, and Materia, 12, fall in love and to the anger of Materia’s father, the two elope.

Materia soon gives birth to Kathleen but takes no interest in the child. When Materia notices that James’s love has shifted from her to their daughter she thinks enlarging the family will solve the problem. The result is the birth in rapid succession of Mercedes and Frances. Yet James is still focussed on Kathleen and believes that she will one day become a great opera singer. On the day of Kathleen’s first public concert, Britain’s entry into the Great War is announced and James signs up to fight. Materia secretly hopes he never returns.

On his return from war James is suffering from what the narrator calls “PTSD”, although at the time it would have been called “shell shock”. James has changed for the worse and is now less in control of himself.

James sends Kathleen to New York to train as an opera singer. However, he receives a note that tells him Kathleen is mixing with the wrong crowd in New York and James has no choice but to bring her home. He returns with a Kathleen, who is pregnant and James keeps Kathleen confined to the house until she gives birth.

Materia, caring for Kathleen, has to make a terrible decision. Either the twins Kathleen is carrying must die or Kathleen must. Kathleen consents to die and Materia delivers the twins by cutting her belly open with scissors. The male twin Ambrose dies, but the female twin Lily survives although she is stricken with polio. When James discovers that Kathleen is dead, he accuses Materia of killing her and gives her an horrific beating. Soon afterwards Materia commits suicide.

As Lily grows up she is taught the family myth by Frances that Kathleen died of the flu and that Materia is her mother and died giving birth to her. To earn money James goes into the mines, which he had promised his mother he would never do, and with the advent of Prohibition in the US, he moves into bootlegging.

Meanwhile, Frances deliberately works to be expelled from school and succeeds, whereupon she gets a job singing and dancing in the sleazy club that her father supplies with his home-made liquor.

And this is it. The action merely stops rather than concludes which makes clear that Part 1 is not meant to be self-sufficient. Its lack of a throughline also gives us no impetus to return for Part 2. The two acts of Part 1 each end with an image of Kathleen in New York in the company of someone in a suit and fedora. Those who know the novel will understand that this is allusion to the events in Part 2. Those who don’t, won’t.

This brings up the question of who Moscovitch and Palmer have adapted the novel for. Is it meant primarily to allow readers of the novel to see the story play out on stage? Or is it meant to intrigue even those who have never read the novel? The answer is that Moscovitch and Palmer seem to have dedicated themselves to the novel’s readers when then should have made certain the story was of interest to everyone. To achieve that would have necessitated a major reordering of the events as MacDonald via Lily narrates them in the book.

Indeed, Moscovitch and Palmer deliberately confuse matters in Part 1 so they will not be clearly understood. When James gets a message from “An Anonymous Well-Wisher” about Kathleen, he immediately sets out for New York saying he may be gone a week. When he returns he accompanies Kathleen, who looks to be about 5-6 months pregnant. If you know the story, James has either been gone for 5-6 months instead of a week, or the writer and director are deliberately messing with the chronology to conceal the story’s big mystery of who Lily’s father really is.

Even more deceptive is a second ploy. When Kathleen gives birth to twins we are told one is White (Lily) and one is Black (Ambrose). Throughout the action we occasionally have glimpses of Lily and Ambrose interacting in one of Lily’s visions. It is possible for children of different colours to be born to a mixed-race couple but the chances are about 1 in 500. Yet, even given this rarity, the point is that the couple must be mixed-race. The fact that the twins are of different colours is not mentioned anywhere in the novel. It is, instead, a dishonest attempt by the author and director deliberately to deceive the audience as to the identity of Lily’s father.

Part 2 is in three acts. Act 1 tells the story of Frances’s further fall into sin and her remarkable resurrection through pregnancy and loss. Act 2 has the advantage of including Kathleen’s diary which could stand as a story on its own. This is the most satisfying section of the play since it is the only part where it is more than a catalogue of actions. Indeed, MacDonald actually creates in Kathleen a character who regularly reflects on what she does. Act 3 concludes the play’s six hours with a volley of people forgiving sins in others, even when it strains credulity that ordinary people could forgive such deeply heinous crimes committed against them.

As a director Alisa Palmer gives us a well-cast, well-drilled ensemble, even if there is little attempt to have the multiple mini-scenes of Part 1 flow into each other. Acts 1 and 2 of Part 2 have their own story arcs. If Moscovitch and Palmer were more ruthless in turning the novel into an engaging stage play, they could have concentrated their energies in creating “The Story of Frances Piper” or “The Story of Kathleen Piper” since these, indeed, are the only fully realized stories in the novel.

Nevertheless, Moscovitch and Palmer have created a number of great roles for actors. The juiciest role of all, that of Frances Piper, is dazzlingly portrayed in all its complexity and contradictions by Deborah Hay. Hay shows us the whole course of Frances’s life, from childhood to her death at age 40. She plays Frances’s inherent contrariness as comic when as a child she stuffs a doll’s eye in her nose or says bad words to get a reaction. Then Hay beautifully demonstrates how this contrary spirit takes a nasty turn in deliberately provoking her father to see how far he’ll go in punishing her.

This treatment from James seems to lead her directly to her career as a singer and dancer at the club James supplies with liquor. It is as if she is seeking to revenge herself on him by degrading herself. Even as a performer Hay clearly shows the stages Frances goes through from embarrassing adolescent and all-round bad girl to seasoned artist and prostitute who can even sing while standing on her head. Hay’s brilliance shines in every phase of Frances’s life, often illuminating the comic and tragic sides of her character at the same time.

The next richest role is that of Frances’s older sister Mercedes. Jenny L. Wright has been in over 50 productions at the Shaw Festival since 1996, but this is the best role that has ever come her way. Wright is so extraordinarily impressive as Mercedes and later as Jeanne Lacroix that one can only think her talents have been undervalued at the Shaw.

It is difficult to make a good person interesting, but that is exactly what Wright achieves with Mercedes. Wright lets us know long before Mercedes ever says anything about it that in having to take on the role of mother to Frances and Lily and housekeeper to her father Mercedes has lost all hope of freedom in her life. Simply through her tone of voice, Wright lets us hear how Mercedes’ resignation is mixed with a resentment she tries, not always successfully, to suppress. As Jeanne Lacroix in Part 2, Wright paints a delectable portrait of a woman living in the midst of decay who gives herself fine airs and uses refined speech but is in reality a drug addict and a prostitute.

James Piper, the head of the Piper family, could be a much more substantial role than Moscovitch and Palmer make it. After all, we see James from the age of 19 to his own death in his 60s. What is critically missing from James’s role is any contemplation by James on his actions. We hear that he returns from World War I with PTSD, but what is its nature exactly and why does it take the form of exacerbating his worst inclination? We know simply from his nausea after an encounter with Kathleen that James realizes that he is sexually attracted to his own daughter. But why does he punish his wife Materia and his daughter Frances with physical assault? Does he not know they are cowardly acts? And what does he think of his downward course in moving from piano-tuner to miner to bootlegger? We never know. Despite the fact that James is the motor that drives the action in Piper family, Moscovitch and Palmer, following MacDonald, seems curiously uninterested in what makes him the sad man he is. But then MacDonald and following her Moscovitch and Palmer are notably uninterested in any of their male characters.

Despite this, Tim Campbell uses his body language and tone of voice to replace what would have been useful reflection on his actions. He plays James from the carefree young man wildly in love with Materia, to the young husband who doesn’t understand why his child-bride has no interest in housekeeping or, later, in her  daughter. Campbell in so in command of his appearance that we know as soon as he enters whether his encounters with his family will be brutal or gentle. James’s devastation at the death of Kathleen is immediately visited upon Materia and then Frances in blows. In old age Campbell shows through James’s walk and slump that he is tired of fighting against life and tired of keeping secrets.

Samantha Hill is a vibrant Kathleen Piper. In Part 1 Kathleen is not a sympathetic figure and Hill does not play her as such. This Kathleen is proud and clearly feels superior to her sisters. In Part 2, however, the character blooms. Hill brings out all the comedy of a young woman having to cope with the antique habits of her “Aunt” Giles and brings out all the wonder of falling in love. She makes Kathleen’s frustration with her Maestro comic, and in Kathleen’s romance with Rose, Hill shows that, in her more discreet fashion, Kathleen is every bit as transgressive as Frances. It is brave of Hill to sing opera since her voice in no way suggests that Kathleen is the next Maria Malbran as everybody says. Yet, Hill does well enough that each aria is rewarded with applause.

Amaka Umeh does a fine job of playing the enigmatic Rose, Kathleen’s accompanist and later lover in New York. For this role Umeh has rid herself of all the over-expansive gestures she used in Stratford productions and presents us with a young woman who is initially restrained with Kathleen to the point of rudeness. Why Rose wants Kathleen to stay away is clear once we meet Rose’s drug-addled mother. Then Umeh charmingly demonstrates how Rose gradually lets go of all the inhibitions which he has held on to for so long and finally is able to enjoy herself in Kathleen’s company.

Janelle Cooper makes a strong impression as no-nonsense Adelaide Taylor, the wife of Leo Taylor, whom Frances flirts with at the club. Cooper makes an even stronger impression as Sweet Jessie Hogan, the main singer at the nightclub in Harlem that Kathleen and Rose frequent. Cooper is a belter who has mastered all the techniques of putting over jazz standards in a period fashion. Cooper won the loudest applause in both parts of the play for the expertise and sheer exuberance of her numbers.

In other roles Antoine Yared plays three roles but is especially fine as Kathleen’s autocratic Maestro, the “Kaiser”. Despite his seemingly irrational strictness, Yared lets us glimpse that the Maestro is so hard because he knows Kathleen could be so great. Diane Flacks also plays three roles. The most memorable is that of Kathleen’s “Aunt” Giles, who doesn’t quite understand how her antiquated mode of living is out of synch with that of a young person living in a big city for the first time. Cara Rebecca is constrained by the text to show us primarily the saddest side of James’s wife Materia. Rebecca makes her just as glum and lumpish as James says she is. Nevertheless, once James goes to war, Rebecca makes us see that Materia’s seeming impassivity really conceals a hatred for James that has only grown with each beating and especially with her recognition of James’s unhealthy attraction to Kathleen. Moscovitch and Palmer have given Eva Foote as Lily very little personality as the narrator and very little to give us any sense of what kind of person Lily is. Lily is meant to be stricken with polio and wears a brace. First, the brace for Lily does not go above the knee and below the ankle as a real brace with a polio boot would do. Second, Foote makes no effort to suggest that her walk is in any way affected by wearing a brace.

Of the four musicians, Douglas Price deserves special mention for his ability to play the piano so convincingly in so many styles, from operatic accompaniments to popular tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s to jazz and blues. Sean Mayes’s music, making much use of Tibetan singing bowls, creates more of a magical atmosphere enveloping the characters than Moscovitch’s dialogue is able to do.

In Canada we like to reward people for effort and it’s clear that enormous amount of effort has gone into the adaptation of Fall on Your Knees for the stage. In remaining so close to the structure of MacDonald’s novel, Moscovitch and Palmer have unwittingly undermined the whole project since nearly the whole of Part 1 is undramatic and hardly impells an audience to return for Part 2. Part 2, in contrast, in completing Frances’s story and in permitting, with Kathleen, a character to reflect on her actions in life is much more successful as drama. For the entire two-part work to be successful, it needs to be radically rethought with a view toward what is and is not dramatic.

There are other novels turned into two-part 6-hour-long plays. The most famous is Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby adapted by David Edgar, first in an eight-hour version in 1980, then in a six-hour version in 2006 seen in Toronto in 2008. Another is Robert Harris’s Imperium turned into a two-part drama by Mike Poulton for the RSC in 2017. Both have a strong, propulsive throughline with political implications – the struggle against poverty in the first, the struggle against autocracy in the second. Common to both is a central character – Nickleby in the first, Cicero in the second – who undergoes a series of experiences that change them.  Nickleby’s experiences lead to his growth and success. Cicero’s experiences lead to his predictions of corruption coming true and to his death.

In both there is a strong central character who undergoes trials and deeply considers what they mean. This is not the case in Fall on Your Knees. In trying to encompass a whole family and tell the stories of four sisters, the adaptors have not given the audience any one character, except perhaps Frances, to hold on to. The consequence is that the audience is only fitfully, if ever, fully engaged with the characters on stage or with the play as a whole. Having completed Fall on Your Knees, let’s hope that the adaptors can turn their talents to a subject more suitable for dramatization.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ensemble of Fall on Your Knees; Tim Campbell as James Piper and Cara Rebecca as Materia; Samantha Hill as Kathleen and Amaka Umeh as Rose; Deborah Hay as Frances; Janelle Cooper (centre) as Sweet Jessie Hogan. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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