Stage Door Review 2024

Marion Bridge

Tuesday, March 5, 2024


by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Mike Semple

Theatre Aezir, Procunier Hall, Palace Theatre, London, ON

February 29-March 10, 2024

Agnes: “This is a chance to make something good happen”

Theatre-lovers in London, and any theatre-lovers who can get themselves to London by March 10, should rush to see Marion Bridge at Procunier Hall in Palace Theatre. Marion Bridge is one of best multi-actor plays by Daniel MacIvor, who is widely acclaimed as one of Canada’s greatest playwrights. Theatre Aezir, a small professional company, gives this funny, gentle play a wonderfully insightful production featuring superb performances from all three actors.

The premise of the story is one that playwrights recur to far too often of a family reuniting because of a shared family event whether a crisis as in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (2007) or a celebration as in David Eldridge’s Festen (2004). In Marion Bridge (1998) the three MacKeigan sisters reunite on Cape Breton Island where they were born because their mother is dying. This might seem to be a depressing circumstance. Most playwrights use this premise to allow long-buried secrets to surface. MacIvor takes a different tack. He portrays the reunification of the sisters as a means of their finding a way forward. Humour arises in how the three very different sisters gradually move from general distrust and animosity towards each other to general understanding. The imminent death of their mother gives the sisters a chance to reassess their lives and ultimately re-form their family.

I saw the Toronto premiere of Marion Bridge in 2007 and was mostly concerned with how different the play was from MacIvor’s previous solo pays. I found that this time I could focus more clearly on the play itself and what I saw was a beautifully constructed work that has much to say about human frailty and the importance of letting go of illusions that hinder a person’s enjoyment of life.

One reason I enjoyed the play even more this time than I did in 2007 was its setting. Theatre Aezir is staging the play in Procunier Hall, the black box theatre space in the Palace Theatre, with only 75 seats. The richness of the play depends on the minute changes that the characters experience when interacting, and an intimate space like Procunier Hall literally places us closer to the action where we can more easily observe these changes.

This intimacy would not work, of course, without highly detailed performances from the actors, but under Mike Semple’s sensitive direction that is exactly what all three actors provide. The three give some of the most natural, realistic performances I have ever seen, so much so that you feel you are overhearing family conversations rather than watching a play. Surrounded by the audience on three sides, the actors put as much thought into how their characters react to what is being said as they do into speaking. It is unusual but very exciting in a production when the facial expressions of both the speaker and the listener are equally important. By highlighting these minute interactions, the actors allow us to see how the characters think and to see how the bonds among them are built up link by link. This is ensemble acting of the highest order.

Carolyn Grace Hall is well cast as Agnes, the oldest sister, the one who left Cape Breton to make it big in the big city. The problem is that she didn’t make it big and she knows it and her sisters know it but still allow Agnes her pretentions. Hall shows that Agnes is very poor at hiding her fear. While the other two sisters visit their mother upstairs every day, Agnes drinks to numb her fear of seeing her which is likely also a fear of confronting death. Hall has Agnes initially look down on Theresa and Louise as unworldly and naïve. But Hall demonstrates that the more contact she has with her sisters, the less able she is to think herself above them.

Karalyn Riepert plays Theresa, the middle sister who has become a nun. Riepert shows through Theresa’s reactions that she is all too familiar with being thought unworldly but is able to tolerate this criticism as a nun has to tolerate any number of conventional criticisms. What is especially satisfying about Riepert’s portrayal is how she allows us to see that that Theresa, despite her outward primness, still has a mischievous streak in her. And, more seriously, despite Theresa’s outward piety, Riepert reveals the great difficulty Theresa is suffering as her faith begins to erode.

Jessica Pereira is Louise, the youngest and apparently the most out-of-touch of the three. Her life revolves around the television schedule, particularly around a soap opera called “Ryan’s Cove”, whose plot becomes ever more outrageous as the play continues. Louise knows everyone thinks she is “strange” and thinks she is “strange” herself, although we never find out why she is the way she is. Pereira plays Louise as someone who may well be somewhere on the autism spectrum but who also is aware that she needs to widen her focus in life. One of the most pleasing aspects of MacIvor’s plot is how bit by bit the other two sisters, especially Agnes, begin to make inroads in connecting with Louise and find ways to communicate with her.

What Theatre Aezir’s production shows more clearly that the one I saw in Toronto is that despite their differences, all three MacKeigan sisters have cut themselves off from the real world – Agnes through alcohol, Theresa through religion and Louise through television. Nevertheless, the play is a hope-filled depiction of how the three come to terms with the world and with each other.

People who look at what’s playing in cities and towns in Ontario are naturally drawn to what is happening at the larger theatres. A play like Marion Bridge staged by a small company like Theatre Aezir is exactly the kind of production that convinces me that theatre-lovers have to look beyond the larger theatres to see the full extent of theatrical life in the province. I am so glad I happened to see this production of MacIvor’s play because I feel it has given me a much greater understanding of it that I had before. This was my first visit to Theatre Aezir, but, having seen the fine work it has achieved, I plan to keep a sharp lookout for its future offerings.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Carolyn Grace Hall as Agnes, Karalyn Riepert as Theresa and Jessica Pereira as Louise. © 2024 Andrea DaCosta.

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