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SCRUTINY | Ontario’s Rural Theatres Tackle Sectarian Violence Via History

By Paula Citron on August 16, 2023

The Donnellys: A Trilogy (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)
The Donnellys: A Trilogy (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)

4th Line Theatre/The Cavan Blazers, by Robert Winslow, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, until Aug. 26, (Protestants against Catholics). Tickets here
Blyth Festival/The Donnellys: A Trilogy, by James Reaney, adapted by Gil Garratt, Harvest Stage, Blyth ON, until Sept. 3 (Catholics against Catholics). Tickets here.

It just so happens that two of Ontario’s foremost outdoor stages are mounting productions that portray dark pages from this province’s pre-Confederation history, and both true stories are rooted in the theatres’ own local history.

The Cavan Blazers

In 1854, in Cavan Township south of Peterborough, a Protestant/Orangeman vigilante group called the Cavan Blazers mounted a concerted campaign designed to terrify Catholic settlers, ultimately burning them out, and so prevented the establishment of a Catholic parish. Both sides were of Irish descent. (In a touch of irony, the local hockey team is called the Cavan Blazers.)

In 1856, on the Roman Line near Lucan, just north of London, the Donnelly family lost 50 acres of land that they had cleared when an unscrupulous landlord sold them out, and so began a reign of terror of the Donnellys versus their neighbours, ending with the massacre of five Donnelly family members in 1880. In this case the vigilantes were fellow Irish Catholics who, shockingly, had the blessings of the church. There were two trials, but no one was ever convicted of the crime.

4th Line Theatre is actually located in Cavan Township, while the Blyth Festival is roughly an hour and 20 minutes from London on County Road 4, also called the London Road.

The Cavan Blazers (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre)
The Cavan Blazers (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre)

The Cavan Blazers has an honoured place in the history of 4th Line. It was the very first play the company presented when artistic director/playwright/actor Robert Winslow turned his family farm into a theatre in 1992. So popular is the play that this is the seventh time it has been presented.

The play also set the format of what we have come to love at 4th Line. I call it armies marching. Each play is an epic, large scale production featuring a mix of equity actors, theatre students and graduates, and community stalwarts of all ages and experiences.

The cast this time features 50 performers. This means that when they need a mob scene, they can have a mob. They can mount an Orange parade with King Billy on his white horse, while in the farmer’s field adjacent to the barnyard theatre, they can have armed Cavan Blazers swoop out on horseback and foot bent on mayhem.

The Donnellys: A Trilogy

The Donnellys: A Trilogy (Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs) was written by the late esteemed poet, playwright and man of letters, James Reaney (1926-2008). The plays debuted at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in successive years, 1973 to 1975. They tell the sorry chronicle of James and Johannah Donnelly and their seven sons and one daughter.

For this Blyth production, artistic director Gil Garratt has adapted and abridged the plays specifically for the outdoor Harvest Stage, with the blessings of the Reaney family. Audiences can see the three parts on successive nights, performed by the same ten professional actors playing the many roles. (The Festival also has an indoor series in the Blyth Memorial Hall.)

L-R (clockwise): The Cavan Blazers (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre); The Donnellys (2) (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)
L-R (clockwise): The Cavan Blazers (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre); The Donnellys (2) (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)

Relevance In The Contemporary World

The takeaway from these plays is the relevance.

When Winslow wrote The Cavan Blazers, Northern Ireland was mired in the blood-drenched Troubles. In fact, during each remount, something terrible has been going on in the world — the civil wars between the Balkan countries of the former Yugoslavia, the tribal massacres in Rwanda.

The Donnellys’ Catholic on Catholic violence resonates with the brutal Muslim sectarianism between Sunni and Shia, and the attacks on their fellow citizens by religious radicals.

To make this analogy plain, Cavan Blazers director Kim Blackwell, 4th Line’s managing artistic director, has designed a set with all the walls plastered with Catholic and Protestant slogans from today’s Northern Ireland, which is like taking a trip down Belfast’s Falls Road.

Her four equity actors, who carry the play, are very strong. JD Nicholsen shines as Justice of the Peace Patrick Maguire, the man whose dream it is to make Cavan township a home for Catholic settlers. His nemesis and leader of the Protestant Orangemen Cavan Blazers is Dane Swain, performed with tremendous authority by Colin A. Doyle.

Katherine Cullen is Ann Maguire, Patrick’s long-suffering Methodist wife, while Winslow (who once performed the Maguire role), plays fellow Justice of the Peace John Knowlson. It is the hapless Knowlson whom Maguire convinces to give land to the Catholic settlers who are brought en masse into Cavan township. Young actor Julia Scaringi gives a spirited performance as Catholic firebrand Martha Cooney.

As usual, talented Justin Hiscox has provided the Irish-based music, while designer Korin Cormier has anchored the many costumes in authentic period. 4th Line’s productions always sound and look good.

L-R: 4th Line Theatre (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre); Harvest Stage, Blyth Theatre Festival (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)
L-R: 4th Line Theatre (Photo courtesy of 4th Line Theatre); Harvest Stage, Blyth Theatre Festival (Photo courtesy of Blyth Theatre Festival)

The Donnellys: A Trilogy – Handcuffs: Part III

Over at Blyth, Garratt’s adaptation of The Donnellys: A Trilogy has retained the poetic cadence of the Reaney original. The many monologues express the character’s inner thoughts, while the scenes carry the action. Garratt has also directed, and he knows the wrap-around Harvest Stage well. With its two staircases and gallery, Garratt’s cast is up, down, and all around the town, so to speak. As is Blyth custom, the cast also performs the live music.

I caught the last of the trilogy, Handcuffs, and the 10-member (7 men, 3 women) cast is very powerful. Some performances should be singled out, however. Paul Dunn as Father Connolly, the self-righteous priest who sets the vigilante group in motion, is wonderfully loathsome. James Dallas Smith as the sly bishop is also strong, as is Steven McCarthy as the dignified Will Donnelly.

The monumental special effects, I’m assuming, are credited to set and lighting designer Beth Kates. When the vigilantes set the Donnelly house on fire, it is an absolutely startling moment. For her part, Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston’s period costumes look terrific.

Now here is an interesting twist. Jonathan Goad is currently appearing in the Stratford Festival’s production of Spamalot, but he’s credited as fight director for Blyth’s Donnelly Trilogy. Well, he has done a bang-up job in Handcuffs. When those vigilantes attack the Donnellys, the violence is incredibly realistic, in fact, frighteningly so.

Final Thoughts

The Blyth Festival and 4th Line Theatre share other commonalities. Their plays are original Canadian fare, with 4th Line’s mostly drawn from local history, while Blyth’s productions, both historic and contemporary, are chosen to appeal to its rural audience base. In both cases, their audiences are incredibly loyal.

And, we can’t leave this discussion without talking about the rain which has plagued outdoor theatres all summer.

Mercifully, Blyth’s shower was short-lived, and the play could continue after an army of people dried off the stage with huge pieces of cloth. Poor 4th line had to finally call the production when it was nearly over, but did send a copy of the second act of The Cavan Blazers to people’s emails so they would know how the play ended.

At both theatres, the actors, without missing a beat, continued on in the rain until stopped by management. Now that’s professionalism at its core.


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Paula Citron
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