Stage Door Review 2023

The Donnellys: A Trilogy

Friday, August 18, 2023


by James Reaney, adapted and directed by Gil Garratt

Blyth Festival, Harvest Stage, Blyth

June 22-September 3, 2023

James, Sr.: “The Donnellys don’t kneel”

Over the years the Blyth Festival has presented various plays about the infamous Donnelly family of the 19th century. In 2002 it presented The Outdoor Donnellys by Paul Thompson, a distillation of James Reaney’s The Donnellys: A Trilogy staged in locations all over the town of Blyth. In 2016 Thompson and Gil Garratt wrote The Last Donnelly Standing about Robert Donnelly, who was away from home at the time of the massacre of his family. This year the Festival presents what is essentially the ur-drama about the family – The Donnellys: A Trilogy by James Reaney, the three parts first staged at the Tarragon Theatre in 1973, ’74 and ’75. In 1975 Keith Turnbull, director of the trilogy took the work on a cross-Canada tour that met with great acclaim. Although The Donnellys is an acknowledged classic of Canadian drama, the plays have not been staged professionally as a trilogy since that time. The present heroic staging at Blyth not only gives Canadians a rare chance to see this great work but also a chance to experience theatre-making at its finest.

The Donnellys have been the subject of plays besides Reaney’s and of the musical Vigilante (2015) by Jonathan Christenson plus more than 100 works of fiction and non-fiction. The continuing fascination with the family has to do with the way they died. Early in the morning of February 4, 1880, a party of armed men brutally beat James Donnelly, a farmer living near the village of Lucan, Ontario, his wife Johannah, his sons Thomas and John and his niece Bridget Donnelly, a new immigrant from Ireland, and then burnt the house with them in it to the ground. The case aroused international interest as it became known that the killings were the result of a factional feud originating in County Tipperary, Ireland. In Canada over the preceding three decades, the vendetta had claimed a heavy toll in lives and property. There were two trials of the accused men. At the first, in September 1880, the jury disagreed. A second jury in January 1881 returned a directed verdict of “not guilty”.

Co-directors for the extensive Donnelly resource website (, Dr. Jennifer Pettit and Dr. Kori Street of Mount Royal College, ask the essential questions which have kept the issues surrounding the massacre of the Donnellys alive: “What were the motives? Why would no jury convict the murderers? Was this a community taking justice into their own hands when the justice system failed, or was it mob rule terrorizing rural Ontario?”

James Reaney’s trilogy is the most complete treatment of the Donnellys’ story for the stage as well as the most theatrically fascinating. For the present revival, Gil Garratt, Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival and director of the trilogy, received permission from Reaney’s heirs to abridge and adapt the plays. The original productions were intended for a company of 14. Garratt’s adaptation is meant for a company of ten. His alterations mean that each actor plays four or more roles, include not only human beings, but a tree, horses, cows and a dog. Garratt retains in his adaptation the qualities that make the trilogy so important in Canadian drama, namely Reaney’s kaleidoscopic use of all theatrical means – dialogue, songs, poems, music, dance, mime – to tell his story.

The productions are all meant to be staged on Blyth’s outdoor Harvest Stage built in 2021. Yet, should the weather prove inclement, as it has so often this summer, the Festival notifies ticket-holders in advance that the production will move indoors to the Blyth Memorial Hall.

Sticks and Stones

The first play of the trilogy is Sticks and Stones (1973) running from June 24 to September 1. The action shifts from Ireland to Canada and from the early 1840s to some period after 1880 when the massacre occurred. One advanced feature of Reaney’s treatment is his non-chronological telling of the tale and his shifting from individual story to story within the overall saga of the Donnellys. A key to the tale of the Donnellys is that strife that had origins in Tipperary, Ireland, continued once the family emigrated to Canada. James Donnelly (Randy Hughson), the patriarch, believes that moving to Canada means having a new start. Unfortunately, he moves into an area heavily populated with Irish immigrants who don’t believe a move across the Atlantic cancels old grievances.

The play begins in Biddulph Township in Ontario. The youngest Donnelly at the time, the crippled William (Steven McCarthy) asks his mother Johannah (Rachel Jones) why children call him a “Blackfoot”. This has nothing to do with his foot.

We learn in a flashback that in Tipperary there was a secret society alled the Whitefeet, who used assault and intimidation of their English landlords to prevent evictions and high rents. Anyone who did not join the White was termed a Blackfoot and was treated as an enemy. A scene shows James Donnelly being asked to join the Whitefeet and refusing, objecting to them in general and to their audacity in particular in asking him to kneel to take their oath. “The Donnellys don’t kneel” is a phrase that occurs frequently in the play. That William should be called a Blackfoot in Canada, where the whole rationale of the Whitefeet is absent, means sickeningly that an irrational hatred, of Catholic against Catholic, has become entrenched within the Irish community in Canada.

Reaney traces through one vivid scene after another how the persecution of the Donnellys, who simply want to live as independent individuals, escalates until the fatal night of 1880. James Sr. thought he had an agreement with John Grace (James Dallas Smith) to settle on a parcel of land in Biddulph township (15 km northwest of London, Ontario), but Grace sells half of the land to Patrick Farrell even though the Donnellys had worked it for ten years. At a logging bee in 1857 James Sr. and Farrell get into a drunken fight and James kills Farrell with a handspike after Farrell calls him a Blackfoot. James is charged with premeditated murder which brings the death penalty, but Johannah collects a petition supporting James and walks 40 miles to Goderich to present the petition to the Lieutenant Governor (Paul Dunn). The outcome of the petition is a reduction of James’s sentence to seven years in Kingston Penitentiary. Johannah manages to hold the family together, but without James Sr.’s steadying influence, the elder sons commit crimes to retaliate against crimes done to them.

Before any discussion of individual performances, it must be mentioned that all ten actors are ideally cast for the multiple roles they play and all ten function as a true ensemble. The dominant characters of Part I are James Sr., Johannah and Showman Murphy. Randy Hughson perfectly embodies the Donnelly patriarch James, Sr. Hughson plays him as gruff and decisive, with a strict personal code of right and wrong and high sense of dignity. It is this personal code and this sense of dignity that cause him to refuse to kneel to any other man. These qualities also cause others to feel James thinks he is superior to them which engenders suspicion and malice. James, Sr., does not have the traditional hubris of a tragic hero. Rather the problem is that his community attribute hubris to him because of his refusal to conform.

Rachel Jones is marvellous as Johannah. She is an ideal match for Hughson’s James. Jones shows that Johannah shares all the same qualities that James does and therefore reaps the same opprobrium that he does. Unlike James, who tends to speak only when spoken to, Johannah speaks her mind whenever she has a chance and berates those she thinks are wrongdoers in elaborate imprecations. Jones is a master of this voluble aspect of Johannah’s character so that you want to applaud the vast amount of fury she manages to conjure up. In Part I, Jones is especially fine in depicting the stages of the physical toll that Johannah’s 40-mile trek take on her.

Showman Murphy is a non-historical character Reaney adds by way of placing the Donnelly tragedy in context. Murphy is the emcee of a travelling show some time after 1880 that purports to depict the infamous crimes of the Donnellys and their just punishment. James Dallas Smith has the full measure of the smarmy mountebank who entertains his audience (ourselves) with ballads but simultaneously mocks us for our morbid curiosity. Smith is excellent at smiling in such a way that Murphy seems at once trying to please us as well as deride us. Reaney has Murphy appear in all three parts of the trilogy which adds a level of irony to the many levels of metatheatricality that Reaney has built into the trilogy. Murphy attributes to the audience the lowest possible motives for seeing a play about the Donnellys which forces us to question our own motives and those of the playwright.

The St. Nicholas Hotel

The full title of the second play of the trilogy is The St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm. Donnelly Prop. (1974), which runs from July 15 to September 2. The title refers to the year 1883, three years after the massacre, when William Donnelly (Steven McCarthy) and his wife Norah (Hallie Seline) began running the St. Nicholas Hotel in Appin, Ontario (43 km southwest of London, Ontario). The play itself focusses primarily on the period 1873 to 1878, known as the Stagecoach Feud, when Will Donnelly and his brothers Mike (Mark Uhre) and Tom (Cameron Laurie) started a stagecoach line in competition with the line run by Patrick Finnegan (Paul Dunn). The Donnelly Line was faster and smoother than the Finnegan Line, which sought to put the Donnellys out of business. This led to a rivalry that erupted into brutality on both sides. Horses were mutilated, coaches were sabotaged or destroyed, stables burnt down. Yet, only the Donnellys were hauled before magistrates for their crimes. Even then, lack of witnesses and evidence meant that the Donnellys often received fines or light jail terms – a fact that only further infuriated Finnegan.

While The St. Nicholas Hotel presents the Stagecoach Feud as the most obvious sign of outright battle between the Donnellys and their community, the play depicts numerous other ways in which the community fought the family. On a personal level, Will’s marriage to Maggie Thompson (Masae Day) is thwarted against her wishes and leaving her unhappy for the rest of her short life. On a political level, we see that the Donnellys and their supporters represent a liberal Catholic voting bloc that is preventing the Tories from their dream of sending a conservative Catholic MP to parliament. And on a purely criminal level, we see the formation of the Vigilante Committee, a splinter group from the church-sanctioned Biddulph Peace Society, whose sole purpose is to exterminate the Donnelly family.

The St. Nicholas Hotel thus depicts a metastasis of hatred against the Donnellys that goes beyond not joining the Whitefeet in Ireland to a completely irrational hatred of a family that fails to conform. What is particularly frightening is that the local politicians have their own reasons to sanction such hatred.

The play presents two salient examples of how hatred of the family has grown out of control. In one scene a women (Hallie Seline) claims that the Donnellys have stolen her cow. A neighbour, however, says he has just seen her cow and it is not stolen. Yet, the women will not believe him. In her mind her cow was stolen and if the Donnellys didn’t do it, who else would? This simple instance shows how a group that does not conform becomes a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong.

In a worse instance, a member of the Vigilante Committee (Cameron Laurie) murders Michael Donnelly, after Michael has moved out of Biddulph Township and no long works for the stagecoach line. Clearly, in the minds of some the Donnellys have moved beyond being scapegoats to being embodiments of evil that must not be allowed to live.

In Part II the focus shifts away from James, Sr., and Johannah to their children and their children’s adversaries. Steven McCarthy shows that Will has grown from the bullied, inquisitive child we saw in Part I to a highly intelligent, well-spoken young man who instantly sees through the ruses presented by his opponents. Will’s gentle courting of Maggie and the pain that follows forms part of the emotional core of the play.

In contrast to Will is James Donnelly, Jr., the eldest of the Donnelly siblings and the least respectable. Geoffrey Armour gives a disturbing portrait of a dissolute young man who has become an alcoholic and now, afflicted with consumption, has come back to the family home to die. Armour also plays Finnegan’s driver Ned Brooks and the leader of the Vigilante Committee, James Carroll. Armour makes Brooks merely brash and uncouth. Carroll, however, he imbues with stealth and an anti-Donnelly obsession that, without reason to back it up, chillingly seems to verge on madness.

Mark Uhre plays Michael Donnelly as graceful and athletic, a powerful coach driver. Thankfully, Garratt gives Uhre one solo song where he can show off his rich, cultured voice. Uhre also plays Timothy Corcoran, the conservative Catholic candidate that the Donnellys prevent from being elected. Uhre plays Corcoran as vain and foolishly disdainful of the very people whose votes he needs.

Cameron Laurie plays Tom, the brother of Will and Michael, a boy of high spirits but not fully aware of how his minor crimes worsen his family’s reputation. More important in Part II is his role as Tom Ryan, a boy kicked out of the house by his disagreeable father and taken in by the Donnellys. Tom is captured and tortured but heroically refuses to give his captors any information. In a major shift of character, Laurie also plays the man who murders Michael Donnelly. Laurie puts on such a haunted expression and such hunched over body language that you might find it hard to think he had also played the two Toms.


The third play of the trilogy is Handcuffs (1975), which runs from August 3 to September 3. This is the shortest of the three plays and focusses almost exclusively on the events leading up to and including the massacre of the family. If The St. Nicholas Hotel expanded the context of hatred of the Donnellys to include a political dimension, Handcuffs expands it further to include a religious dimension.

We find that the desire to have a conservative Catholic candidate from Biddulph Township is not merely backed by the Tory politicians but by the Catholic Church itself. Here find that the Bishop (James Dallas Smith) is unhappy with the work of the present priest of St. Patrick’s Church in Biddulph (Mark Uhre) and replaces him with someone who will bring order to the parish. By “order”, the Bishop specifically means bringing the Donnellys in line. The new priest will be the hardline Father Connolly (Paul Dunn), whose distinctive dress includes a short clergy cape made of wolf fur.

Father Connolly decries the Donnellys from the pulpit and even refuses Tom Donnelly the sacrament of confession. He is the founder of the Biddulph Peace Society and not just condones but recommends to the Society’s Vigilante Committee the extirpation of the Donnellys.

Garratt portrays the massacre itself without and sensationalism. The beating of James, Johannah, their son Tom and their niece Bridget is mimed in slow motion, the bodies gathered and doused with kerosene and a projection of flames engulfs the stage. A villain shoots John by mistake thinking he is Will. When the flames die out the stage represents a courtroom where two trials against the vigilantes end in a sentence of “not guilty”.

Slowly the murdered Donnellys come back to life and join the living. James, Sr., pronounces the trilogy’s last sentence, “The star that shines over your house also shines over your neighbour’s house”. No more summary is necessary.

Part III begins with James Dallas Smith as Showmaster Murphy, undisguisedly taunting the audience for travelling so far just to see a family burned alive. By this time Reaney has placed the exclusion and execution of the Donnellys within so many contexts that Murphy’s narrow-minded view of our interest in the story seemsmore  insulting than amusing.

Smith also plays the Bishop, a smooth and smiling prelate secure in his position and world view. In his warped version of Christianity, whatever further the power of the Church is permissible.

The Father Connolly of Paul Dunn seems like someone who aspires to the Bishop’s self-assurance. Where Smith’s Bishop can speak terrible things with complete calm, Dunn’s Connelly cannot prevent suppressed anger from creeping into his voice. Except for his wolf’s fur cape, Dunn’s Connolly looks mild and innocuous, but Dunn counters this with the venomous language he recurs to whenever he speaks of the Donnellys.

As counterweights to these two men are the women Bridget and Norah. Norah is Will’s wife and in the glimpse we have of her at the beginning (set in 1900), Hallie Seline shows her as lively, intelligent, strong and the perfect companion for Will to help support him through the murder of his family and its unhappy aftermath.

While we first meet Norah in Part II, the most important new female character in Part III is Bridget, the Donnellys’ niece just come over from Tipperary. Masae Day conveys all the freshness and excitement of a young girl seeing a vast new country where, she thinks, all the divisions of the old have been left behind. In this, Bridget is clearly meant to remind us of the view James, Sr., had when he first arrived from Ireland. Garratt makes a special point of pausing the action before a vigilante knocks Bridget down just to make us absorb the utter senselessness of her killing simply because she is under the same roof as her aunt and uncle.

I saw the trilogy on three successive evenings, the first and last of which were stormy. Whether staged on the Harvest Stage or on the stage of the Memorial Hall, Garratt employed the kind of minimalism recommended in Reaney’s stage directions necessary for the action’s frequent changes of time and place. Reaney states, “The room in which the story is presented contains all of the objects and properties required”. And so it was in all three plays. In Part I, Garratt had the entire cast sit on wooden chairs in an arc across the stage, performing their scenes inside that arc.

The “the objects and properties” in Garratt’s production include musical instruments since Garratt weaves music all through the action. All the cast sing and all play musical instruments. Part I had two upright pianos, a large number of guitars, two violins, an accordion and Irish bodhráns. Parts II and III featured only one piano, but all the other instruments were to hand.

The main advantage of seeing Part II outdoors on the Harvest Stage was the greater sense of openness and the lovely natural setting. A horse-drawn carriage could bring actors to the stage and other actors could make their way down the hill singing a lusty song that we heard before we even saw them. If Part I featured chairs as its primary props, Part II featured trunks. Six trunks arranged in various configurations represented the two competing coaches and Rachel Jones and Paul Dunn spinning hoes represented the coaches’ wheels as well as the toll gates the coaches had to pass through.

The Harvest Stage also offers two storeys and a way of signalling hierarchies or power by placing certain people literally above others. The disadvantage of the Harvest Stage is that the actors are miked. On more than one occasion I found myself scanning the ten people on stage to see who exactly was speaking.

In Part III, held indoors again, the pianos which had flanked the stage were replaced by two, ornate, high-backed chairs, used by the clergymen and signifying their power. For the final court scenes, one of the chairs was placed on a dais, empty with its back to the audience. This could signify how the law had turned its back on the Donnellys or how religion had done the same. It is also reminiscent of the first tombstone erected to the Donnellys (no longer extant) given that Will in narrating the events of the two trials speaks in the past tense.

Garratt is an extraordinarily imaginative director. Scene after scene is filled with just enough information to suggest what our imagination can fill in. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire trilogy was the courtship of Will and Maggie. Both Steven McCarthy and Masae Day are violinists and after they had spoken Reaney’s lines, Garret has them gradually fall into a violin duet that expressed more feeling than their words ever could.

The chances of seeing The Donnellys: A Trilogy are so rare, much less in such a beautifully acted and directed production, that no one with an interest in Canadian drama should let the chance go by to see it. Indeed, it is such a great work that no theatre lover in general should miss it. Reviving the work now makes it feel not so much a commentary on past history as a commentary on our present times.

Scapegoating those who are deemed different or “other” is no thing of the past. Neither are assaults on individual liberty or maniacal grabs for power. Reaney’s trilogy looks at how dysfunctional societies come about with the hope that our recognition of ourselves in the past will help us better understand the present. It would be a great pity if this were the end of Garratt’s immensely satisfying production of Reaney's trilogy. Another national tour of this work is certainly in order. Kudos and deepest thanks to all involved.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Randy Hughson, Steven McCarthy, Masae Day, Geoffrey Armour, Hallie Seline, Paul Dunn, Mark Uhre, Cameron Laurie and James Dallas Smith; (front row) Masae Day, Mark Uhre, Randy Hughson and James Dallas Smith, (back row) Paul Dunn, Geoffrey Armour, Cameron Laurie and Steven McCarthy; Paul Dunn, James Dallas Smith, Geoffrey Armour, Hallie Seline, Mark Uhre and Steven McCarthy (with. Rachel Jones in background). © 2023 Terry Manzo. Donnelly gravesite in Lucan, Ontario. © 2010 saychinqua1.

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