Onstage 8.10.05 

Hard to sell | A questionable tomorrow

Hard to sell

Except for the enchanting double-bill with three divas in the small Studio Theatre, Stratford's new productions of modern plays may be hard-sells.

James Reaney's The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones is a seminal play in modern Canadian drama, admired for its historical and social significance. But this play is the first in a trilogy on the Donnellys, and it isn't especially involving.

The "Black Donnellys" were the subject of a best-selling Canadian book, which Reaney thought unfair and redressed with his plays. Five Donnellys were brutally murdered by neighbors after James Donnelly was released from seven years in jail for murdering a neighbor. Those who burned down the Donnelly home and killed all they could find went free after trial.

Even as seen in Reaney's plays that are sympathetic to the Donnellys, the only main character who is not violent, vicious, bigoted, and mean-spirited is Judith Donnelly, James' wife. Diane D'Aquila makes the most of Reaney's impressive scenes for Judith in Act 2, for the only section of the play in which I gave a damn whether anyone lived or died.

Nicholas Billon'sThe Measure of Love and Raymond O'Neill's Ruth Draper on Tour make up a single bill with three celebrated actresses in two plays about theater. The Measure of Love is a winsome short play about love (not necessarily sexual) between two women, true religious faith and its misdirection, and, above all, the redeeming values of a love of theater. After a 40-year separation, Mabel, a mentally failing actress, reunites with her convent-school friend Joan, a nun, to give her a birthday gift in this theater. The gift is a script of Mabel's autobiographical play that they will read aloud in front of a hired audience (us). In their doing so, old secrets and wrongs will be revealed, and the two will rejoice in final understanding and acceptance.

The play is contrived but endearing, thoughtful and often very funny. Diana Leblanc as Mabel and Fiona Reid as Joan have a picnic with these lovely roles.

Ruth Draper on Tour is a portrait of the legendary monologuist whom John Gielgud called "...(with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us" and of whom the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse said, "Ruth Draper is theatre." Incorporating excerpts from her diary, Raymond O'Neill gives us glimpses of Draper touring various cities worldwide and recreating six of her most famous monologues. Lally Cadeau neither looks nor sounds like Draper, but gives us an impression that is worthy of the legend and a theatrical treat on its own.

The best version I've seen of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, Stratford's impeccable production, sensitively directed by Miles Potter, is still difficult and unpleasant, but haunting and unforgettable. It is probably Williams' most violent and ugly play, but at least this is his most authentically written script for it. Earlier incarnations were flawed by puritanical censorship, timidity, or miscasting. Even the spectacularly cast 1960 film (called The Fugitive Kind), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, was a mess. So this may be your best chance to see the play done right.

Seanna McKenna dominates (Southern plus Italian accent and all) as downtrodden then vengeful Lady Torrance, who falls uncontrollably for drifter Valentine Xavier, solidly played by Jonathan Goad. Peter Hartwell's stylized designs are flavorful and work well, but not what Williams had in mind.

It's hard to talk about enjoying a play that ends with the most sympathetic characters killed or tortured to death offstage. But you're not likely to forget Williams' piercing images: the shed snakeskin jacket, our Orpheus' treasured signed guitar, the fairy lights for the offstage "vineyard," the chanting "Conjur man," the blowtorch, or the final offstage screams.

--- Herbert M. Simpson

You should go if you want to see light, well-played tributes to the love of theater, or difficult-to-watch plays, particularly Tennessee Williams' most violent.

Stratford Festival of Canada, Stratford, Ontario: The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones, to September 14; The Measure of Love and Raymond O'Neill's Ruth Draper on Tour, to September 25; Orpheus Descending, to September 25. | Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario, Canada | $18.85 to $91.16 US dollars | 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca

A questionable tomorrow

"She was about hope," reminisces distraught Miller. "She was about how good things could be."

Yearning for the simplicity of their youth, television trivia buffs Miller, Hoagie, and Wags escape their complicated adult lives through a search for the "Delaware Valley Greta Garbo," '70s TV icon Tamara Tomorrow. As the host of a Philadelphia cartoon show, Tamara, having traveled back from the year 3000, made wild predictions about a future which filled her stargazing kiddie fans with expectation. After a humiliating theater experience, Sharon, Tamara's actress alter ego, goes into hiding.

Douglas Carter Beane's Music From a Sparkling Planet, currently playing at Blackfriars Theatre, swings between our current world and the polyester- and protest-embroiled '70s. As the three friends reflect on the optimism Tamara instilled in them as children, the audience is privy to a behind-the-scenes look at Sharon's tortured life.

David Jason Kyle plays Miller with gay stereotypes, right down to the extended pinkie. However, his delivery of comic lines, like a reference to HR Puffinstuff as a "bi-curous Mayor McCheese," are flawless.

Susan Hopkins plays Tamara with verve, selling the show's camp. Unfortunately, she stands out as the professional sore thumb amongst a handful of amateurs searching for their lines and fumbling with their timing.

The show is interesting enough, appealing to that child in all of us who still clings to the comfort and familiarity provided by Mr. Rogers and Kermit the Frog. After all, as Miller says, "Nothing is as reassuring as the past's view of the future."

But the playwright is forcing onto the audience some deeper meaning about the acceptance of adult responsibility. The balance between comedy and cautionary tale is off, leaving the audience confused as to what emotion is being communicated.

--- Erin Morrison-Fortunato

You should go if you like kitsch, feeling nostalgic, and drunken kids' show hosts from the future.

Music From a Sparkling Planet through August 14 | Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street | $12-$24 | 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org

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