Stage Door News

Millbrook: “The Cavan Blazers” by Robert Winslow begins previews tonight at 4th Line Theatre

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Passion. Division. Fear of the unknown and change. Hopes. Dreams.

The central themes of “The Cavan Blazers,” 4th Line Theatre’s inaugural production that put Winslow Farm on the map three decades ago, are universal.

The story’s ability to resonate with audiences is what has made the flagship play, which returns to the outdoor stage next month for the seventh time, such a success, says 4th Line Theatre founder and creative director Robert Winslow.

Back by popular demand, the fan-favourite show takes audiences back to the mid-1850s, when a religious conflict erupts between Catholic and Protestant settlers in Cavan Monaghan Township.

As the anger of established Protestants grows, a Protestant vigilante gang, dubbed the Cavan Blazers, is formed. Violence upends the community as the group tries to halt Catholic settlement.

Winslow penned the play in 1992 — the culmination of years of interest surrounding the local piece of history, as well as the long-running and deep-rooted conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland dating back centuries.

“I’ve always been drawn to themes of conflict for some reasons, often cultural conflict. Whether it’s cultural injustice or social injustice or historical injustice, or political injustice,” Winslow told The Examiner.

Winslow, who grew up in the township, began researching extensively, learning that the presence of Catholic settlers in the area had largely been “eliminated from history.”

Keen to “unearth” history written by “victors,” Winslow then learned about the Cavan Blazers, His growing interest took him to Ireland, where he studied the Troubles and explored history dating back to the 1500s when the conflict took root.

While “The Cavan Blazers” is now a 4th Line staple, Winslow wasn’t sure how the story would be received. It touches on sensitive issues, and, as he put it “the past is like an old bomb, some people don’t want to go near it.”

There was a lot riding on the first 4th Line production, too.

“Not just the story being controversial, but whether the theatre would be successful. I wasn’t thinking it would last 30 years. But that’s just what happened.

As a story that explores conflict and division between people who aren’t so different at all, Winslow says the play, three decades on, is still very much relevant.

“They’re universal: communication, lack of communication, prejudice,” he said.

Katherine Cullen, who will make her 4th Line summer stage debut playing the character Ann Maguire, echoed Winslow.

“It’s easy to draw parallels with the sort of infighting that’s going on with the Protestants and Catholics in terms of how to share land and space and resources,” Cullen said.

Colin Doyle, Cullen’s real-life husband who plays Dane Swain, a Protestant rebel rouser, said it’s not hard to see the same kind of conflicts playing out around the world right now.

“Even in the last three years, people are rising up and speaking for equality, fairness, justice and being able to live harmoniously, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or COVID,” Cullen said.

“There’s a wonderful line in the show. My character says “we should have talked” and it seems so simple and yet time and time again, around the world no one is talking. Maybe they’re talking at one another but no one is listening, so I’m hoping the audience is able to listen and it sparks a conversation. It’s such a powerful story,” he continued.

Kim Blackwell, 4th Line Theatre’s managing artistic director, is directing the ambitious production for the first time since 2004.

“I call it our ‘Anne of Green Gables,’” Blackwell said, alluding to its popularity as a beloved fixture in the history of the Millbrook theatre.

Despite knowing the ins and outs of the play, the production takes a lot to put together. A cast of 44 actors will share the stage with horses and chickens. There’s fiery action — literally; there will be controlled fires. To top it off, 19 fight scenes are planned.

It’s epic, wide in scope and dynamic. Serious but not without comedy. And for 4th Line, which was forced to shut down during the pandemic, it’s a well-known play Blackburn hopes audiences will flock to, helping to restore pre-pandemic attendance levels.

“We’re still coming off COVID. The numbers were off by about 20 per cent in 2022. It looks like we might get 80 or 83 per cent (audience rates). We’re not back to where we were in 2018 with 95 per cent, so it’s still a rebuilding. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Once the actors take a bow, Blackwell hopes audiences will leave “being a bit kinder to one another.”

“The Cavan Blazers” runs from Aug. 1 to 26, with performances on Tuesdays to Saturdays at 6 p.m. Aug. 1 and 2 are preview performances while opening night takes place Aug. 3.

Tickets can be ordered by phone at 705-932-4445, online at 4thlinetheatre/online or at the box office at 9 Tupper St. in Millbrook.

By Brendan Burke for

Photo: Scene from The Cavan Blazers.