Stage Door Review

Wishful Seeing

Thursday, August 11, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Maja Ardal, directed by Kim Blackwell

4th Line Theatre, Winslow Farm, Millbrook

August 4-27, 2022

“The fact that the accused was a woman made the case even more sensational” (Wishful Seeing, Prologue)

The second show of 4th Line Theatre’s 30th season Wishful Seeing, is based on 2016 novel of same name by Janet Kellough. It’s an entertaining evening in a beautiful setting and would make a fine introduction to anyone who has not yet seen a show by 4th Line Theatre.

This was, in fact, my first and long overdue visit. The plays are staged at Winslow Farm in Millbrook about 30 minutes southwest of Peterborough. Winslow Farm is on a hill overlooking countryside that is unusually picturesque even for this idyllic part of Ontario.

The main layout of the outdoor theatre is a U shape. If the barn is the bottom of the U, a two-storey addition to it forms the left-hand arm of the U and ranked of tiered seating the right-hand arm. More tiered seating is on an island separate from this construction and looks obliquely into the playing area.

The two-storey addition is the first modern example I’ve ever seen of a décor simultané (“multiple settings” is the weak English translation). English and Spanish classical theatre used a bare space that became whatever the characters said it was. In France the décor simultané was popular from the Middle Ages into the 17th century. In this type of scenography all the sets that will be needed in a production are present and seen by the audience all through the play. When actors occupy a certain one of these sets (or “mansions” as they were called), we know that is the new location of the action. In Wishful Seeing looking at the décor from house left to right, we see a platform that represents the lobby of a hotels (which hotel depends on the sign hung above it), a pub, a general store, the ramp leading to a steamship, the manse of Rev. Lewis and in a small structure separate from the manse the town jail on the first floor and a gallows on the second. The second storey of the addition places the Judge (Ian McGarrett) of the trial very much on high.

For Wishful Seeing director Kim Blackwell uses all the mansions of the décor and the area in front of the addition, to the side and even in an open area about 50 feet from the audience with the hills and open sky behind it. Plus she sometimes has actors enter through the audience and sit in the aisles between seats. The overall effect is to integrate the action of the play with the physical setting of the barn and the farm – the perfect approach for a festival that focusses on celebrating local history.

Wishful Seeing is the fifth of the so far seven Thaddeus Lewis mystery novels, a series begun by Janet Kellough. The hero of Kellough’s mysteries is based on an actual historical figure, Rev. Thaddeus Lewis (1793-1866), who was a Methodist circuit rider, or travelling minister, in the middle of the 1800s who retired to Picton in 1865 where he wrote his autobiography.

In Wishful Seeing, Lewis arrives as the new preacher in Cobourg, where there is much speculation, mental and monetary, about the plans for a railway connecting Cobourg with Peterborough, a project completed in 1853, when the play is set. The most contentious aspect of the plan is that the line will require what was then the longest trestle bridge in the world to pass over Rice Lake. Playwright Maja Ardal does not explain this peculiarity in the play, but the reason was that the investors did not want to share profits with the counties on either side of the lake.

Ardal skillfully shifts among three main plots. One involves the arrival of Lewis (Robert Winslow) and his hope of acceptance by the community. Another involves a dispute over the ownership of land that George Howell (J.D. Nicholsen) has sold to the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway company. Howell has bought it from Jack Plews (Julian Pawchuk) for $300 but Howell has sold it for $2000. A descendant of the original owner of the land says it was never Plews’s land to sell. The third plot concerns the increasingly volatile domestic situation of Howell, who tells neither his wife Ellen (Kait Dueck) nor their daughter Caroline (Rylee Dixon), his plans or where he is going. He entrusts Caroline with a satchel containing papers he says she should never open, then disappears.

The three plots come together when the body of a Paul Sherman is found on Spook Island in Rice Lake and Ellen, with no known connection to Sherman, is arrested for the murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Lewis comforts Ellen while she in jail, so much so that he and the gossips in town begin to wonder about the nature of Lewis and Ellen’s relationship. At the same time he and Martha (Kate Bemrose), his quick-witted granddaughter from Cobourg who has become his housekeeper, seek evidence to free Ellen and find the real killer. It all ends in an exciting trial in which we the audience are made to feel like onlookers at court.

The cast is made up of a mix of actors – three Equity actors, many just out of drama school and many community performers. The acting is uneven, with many going for an over-emphatic style. Partially, this may be due to the fact that 4th Line thankfully does not use mics unlike other outdoor theatres. Partially, this is due to the native enthusiasm of the actors which is not a thing to demean.

What makes watching Wishful Seeing so enjoyable is that all the actors know exactly what their characters are doing and why they are doing it. This may seem a basic requirement for any theatrical presentation, but, strangely enough, one finds actors in Toronto and at Ontario’s major theatre festivals who are unable to convey this knowledge. As a result the complex intertwining of plots is absolutely clear. Nineteen actors play 63 roles which mean that some actors play up five different parts. Yet, they have been so well directed that they are able to keep these roles absolutely distinct.

The play features many fine performances from its varied cast. The show’s linchpin is Robert Winslow himself, the founder of the festival and author of 17 plays it has produced. He gives a solid, understated performance as Thaddeus Lewis, a man who knows certain past deeds may make him unfit to be a preacher but prays for God’s forgiveness to continue. We know that he is attracted to Ellen before he does since Ellen reminds him of his late wife Betsy (also Dueck) who appears as a ghost. Winslow is particularly good at showing how Lewis battles his own feelings for Ellen even as becomes closer to her when she is in jail.

Kait Dueck is an ideal Ellen Howell. Her dark, cultured voice and graceful demeanour makes her Ellen stand out from all the other women in the play. Dueck emphasizes Ellen patience and courage even in the face of what she feels is her inevitable doom.

J.D. Nicholsen, whom some will remember from The Pigeon King at Blyth in 2017, well plays the gruff and secretive George Howell whose attitude toward Ellen mysteriously worsens after he has sold the land to the railway. Nicholsen also plays the incompetent police constable Herbert Williams, who doesn’t want to admit how out of his depth he is in investigating a murder.

Conor Ling gives the big city lawyer Townsend Ashby dash and suavity. Ashby’s confidence that Ellen will be found innocent seems almost cavalier in light of the circumstantial evidence that accrues against her. We can see how his intelligence and self-assurance make him attractive to young Martha, but Ling is smart enough to suggest that Ashby’s outer flair may also be part of an overall egocentricity that is not so likeable. In a complete turnaround, Ling also portrays Millie, one of Cobourg’s giddiest gossips, a figure who would be comic if her words were not so harmful.

Kate Bemrose is a lovely presence as Martha Renwell. Bemrose makes Martha smart both in style and brain-power, a young woman whose energy helps keep Lewis afloat when his heart is sinking. Bemrose gives Martha a perkiness and self-possession that make her stand out from the less independent-minded women of Cobourg.

In smaller roles Tavaree Daniel-Simms wins the audience over as the good-natured James Small, the son of Lewis’s talkative next door neighbour. Lewis rebuffs James’s continuing offers of help both because he doesn’t need it and because he does want James to pass on private information to his mother. When Martha arrives, she rebuffs James’s continuing offers of help both because she knows she doesn’t need the help of a man to get by and because she is already smitten with the debonair Townsend Ashby. While we understand how James’s patronizing attitude toward women as helpless things would put Martha off, when she resolutely turns him away, the audience reacted with a sigh of sympathy for the young lad who has tried so hard to win her over.

It’s a sign of how Ardal has framed the play as a folk drama that she gives the role of Digger, the Howell’s dog, such a prominent place. The way Ryan Tobin throws himself into the part is a delight. He has only some makeup, a tail and a hat with ears to make him a dog, but Tobin has made a thorough study of dog behaviour and we laugh at how true to life his portrayal is.

I have already commented on director Kim Blackwell’s imaginative use of the space. Particularly impressive is how she uses distance to create an effect not possible in an indoor theatre. Way in the distance we see people working on the railroad and with the help of an inventive set designer we see the bridge over Rice Lake progress step by step. Blackwell also stages the prelude to the murder far in the distance so that we are really in the same doubtful position as the supposed eye-witness who is so certain about what he saw.

Having finally seen how beautiful the setting is, how well organized the festival is and how engaging a play by 4th Line can be, I regret not having made the trip to Millbrook sooner. Now, fully aware of what a wonderful experience it provides, I hope I can attend much more often.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Robert Winslow as Rev. Thaddeus Lewis and Kait Dueck as Ellen Howell; a scene at Pott’s General store with Megan Murphy as Mrs. Constance Small, Naomi Duval as Jean MacDonald and Conor Ling as as Millie; Kate Bemrose as Martha, Robert Winslow as Rev. Thaddeus Lewis and Conor Ling as Townsend Ashby; the ensemble ready to enter from the barn; Kate Bemrose as Martha and Tavaree Daniel-Simms as James. © 2022 Brookside Studio - Wayne Eardley.

For tickets visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.