Review | The work that went into ‘Fall on Your Knees’ is inspiring and humbling

Fall on Your Knees Part One: Family Tree

Fall on Your Knees Part Two: The Diary

Adapted by Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch from the novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Directed by Palmer. At the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St. E., until Feb. 4. or 416-368-3110

Ten years in the making, it’s one of the most ambitious and hotly awaited theatre events in recent Canadian history: the adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s beloved 1996 novel into an epic two-part play.

The work of some of the country’s finest theatre artists and craftspeople has gone into it, and the talent and downright stamina of the 14-person cast and four musicians through the six hours of playing time is inspiring and humbling (I saw the two parts of the show on successive nights; both parts are played in sequence on Saturdays).

Something crucial is missing from the mix, though: an overriding theatrical concept to translate the brilliantly literary quality of MacDonald’s work to the stage. Without this, the show is stolid and episodic, only taking flight in its final hours as its fragmented family story comes together, vivacious musical numbers led by Janelle Cooper take centre stage and powerful emotion is released. This world premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre will be followed by runs in Halifax, Ottawa and London, Ont., and it’s likely that the company will find more levels and nuances in the material during this two-month tour.

Like so many, I was overwhelmed by MacDonald’s book when I first read it two decades ago: its portrait of early 20th-century Cape Breton brilliantly creates a sense of place — a craggy, moody physical landscape with a surprisingly culturally diverse population, as a young man of Celtic descent marries a Lebanese girl (a plot line that mirrors MacDonald’s own heritage) and their stories intertwine with the Black community.

Rereading the novel in preparation to see the show, I was struck — maybe even shocked — by how profoundly dark it is, structured as an unlocking of traumatic memories of sexual violence. Part of what makes the book so compelling is how much imagination, music and love are woven into this story of transgression and taboo, and how skilfully MacDonald evokes the ways in which a repressive environment — Catholicism figures prominently — leads to warped perceptions and begets self-deception, lies and cruelty masquerading as charity.

It is this evocation of location, and the paradoxically captivating blend of beauty and peril that the stage version does not yet capture.

The plot focuses on the extended Piper family, starting with the marriage of 19-year-old James (Tim Campbell) to 12-year-old Materia (Cara Rebecca), an impulsive union that curdles. James lavishes attention on their eldest child, the vocal prodigy Kathleen (Samantha Hill) and sends her off to New York after a compellingly staged moment of realization that his attachment to his daughter has crossed the line.

The tale’s central mystery starts with what happens to Kathleen in New York that makes James go and haul her back, having been tipped off by an anonymous letter. She comes home pregnant and gives birth to twins, one of whom does not survive, and she dies in childbirth. Whose children they are and what exactly happened on the terrible night of their birth and her death — events that lead to Materia’s death soon after — are further secrets that haunt the family and unfurl as the play goes on.

The extreme personalities of Kathleen’s younger sisters are shaped by these traumas: Frances (Deborah Hay) acts out by turning tricks and singing raunchy songs at the local speakeasy. Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright) becomes a pious, resentful mother figure. The youngest in the family is Lily (Eva Foote), who ends up not being the saint that Mercedes so wants her to be, but rather one of the saga’s most resilient figures.

Part One of the stage adaptation focuses heavily on the family drama with less attention than in the novel on James’s secret sideline as a bootlegger; his forays onto the First World War battlefield and as a picket-line-crossing temporary miner are played as quick and somewhat incongruous episodes. The presence of a local Black family led by the Pipers’ driver Leo “Ginger” Taylor (Tony Ofori) is significantly scaled back, as is that of Materia’s estranged and extended family.

I wondered how a viewer not familiar with the material would make sense of the quick and sometimes under-explained presence of secondary characters, and ended up feeling that the depth, breadth and richness of this material could easily fill up an extended TV miniseries.

Part Two, mostly set in a New York flashback, is refreshing in that we get to follow the burgeoning of the relationship between Kathleen and her accompanist Rose (Amaka Umeh) rather than jumping between different stories. Umeh only appears in the first part of the show as a silhouetted image for reasons that are plot-sensitive, but I wished more liberties were taken with the material to allow Umeh’s extraordinary stage presence and the compelling Kathleen/Rose story to infuse the whole tale.

The central actors play the same characters through a wide swath of their lives, which requires the audience to initially suspend disbelief that middle-aged actors represent children and teenagers.

Hay and Wright are initially adorable as the child versions of Frances and Mercedes, and Hay goes for broke as Frances in her rebellious phase, flipping between near-manic song and dance, and coldly caustic dismissal of family and other intimacies, before mellowing ably into the character’s mature years. Wright captures Mercedes’ combination of generosity and suppressed rage, and shows off different and equally impressive chops in a New York-set cameo. While the writing does not let us much into James’s tortured psyche, Campbell carries this heavy role convincingly throughout.

Director Alisa Palmer and writer Hannah Moscovitch are named as co-creators and adapters of the show, an unusual set of credits indicating that staging is intended to be as much a form of authorship as the script itself.

Palmer says in a program note that the tradition of storytelling in a shared circle was a key inspiration: this manifests as cast members sitting onstage behind the action watching attentively throughout much of Part One. As the story moves to New York the community observation of the action is no longer present, reappearing at the end as the family story coalesces. Another key element is a resonant droning sound created by the onstage playing of glass bowls, which helps deliver a heightened atmosphere when characters appear from the past or a memory breaks through (there are a lot of ghosts in this story).

While both of these devices are in their way effective, they contribute to a cluttered picture on the long Bluma Appel stage. I wished for a better perspective on action happening upstage and it’s particularly frustrating not to have eyes on the musicians whose contributions are so central to the atmosphere.

Camellia Koo’s set is visually striking — tall diagonal wooden slats create a frame over the stage — and Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting helps shift location and mood in sometimes naturalistic and sometimes thematic ways.

Overall, though, the production feels static and overly grounded in the space of the theatre. Particularly in the very long first act of Part One the material feels trapped in the Pipers’ home without suggesting the physical landscape of cliffs, coast roads and secret hideaways, nor the small-town setting that so create context in the book. A pattern of one short scene after another becomes predictable, however elegantly these are often tied together by physical movement of actors and musical underscoring.

As the years have passed since the novel was published, so have questions of safety and consent become central to theatrical practices. Under Anita Nittoly’s direction, the stage violence is convincingly handled, but almost to a fault: it is gut-wrenching to watch and hear episodes of domestic battery over and over again as they’re replayed in the characters’ memories, and this could be triggering to those particularly sensitive to such material.

It has been enriching to spend time in the world of “Fall On Your Knees” again, though in my estimation the material’s most congenial location remains on the page. I look forward to seeing the stage version at the end of its tour at the Grand Theatre in London (where it plays from March 29 to April 2) after the elaborate production has had time to settle and grow.


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