Theatre New Brunswick’s world premiere production of The Boat, based on the short story by Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, is essential theatre for the Maritimes. Adapted by Ryan Griffith, The Boat reminds us that tradition is more than just a way of living, it is the heart and soul of community. And so, what happens when young people reject tradition in the pursuit of opportunity and independence?
Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones, The Boat stages the early memories of a man (Ron Kennell) from Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. He remembers life in the small fishing community where his Father (Ron Kennell) and Mother (Stephanie MacDonald) raised him and his sisters. The man’s father is a fisherman with a strong interest in literature, a great love for books that he passes down to his children. His mother, on the other hand, sees no value in reading books and insists that her children use their time more productively. She persists that her son should be helping his father on the family boat, just as other boys help their fathers once they reach a certain age, but her husband refuses to have their son work with him.
With the support of their father, the sisters become avid readers, find employment with a seafood restaurant (the operators dismissed by the mother as outsiders), and enjoy a social life outside of duties around the house. The sisters eventually move away from home, leaving their brother as the last one in the nest. The pressure from his mother and Uncle (Graham Percy) to participate in the family tradition increases.
The son’s memories are revisited with both nostalgia and mournful meditation. He celebrates the fishing community and their way of life, but also remembers the struggle of those fishermen who worked tirelessly to provide for their families. The sea provides, but also can take away. There is a point where he realizes something new about his father, that perhaps his father never wanted to be a fisherman. He suddenly sees his father in a whole new light, the man who once appeared bigger than life is now exhausted and run down in his mind.
What makes The Boat a compelling story is the fear of irreversible change that motivates the parents to act the way they do. The mother fears the changes she sees in her community and what that means for her family and neighbours, perhaps their way of living will never be the same; the father fears that his children may never have another chance to follow their dreams once they are set on a path.
And so, New Brunswick audiences may find MacLeod’s family drama, originally published in 1968, still very relevant today. Youth out-migration has contributed to significant population decline in New Brunswick. There are young people who would like to stay, but feel their opportunities in the province are limited. As a result, the province is faced with the challenge of both keeping young people here and bringing people back to New Brunswick. Many would be happy if these goals were achieved, but the thing about change is that once it happens, it’s hard to go back to the way things were.
The small, yet mighty drama is staged inside TNB’s Open Space Theatre. Here, the production embraces subtlety in its design and direction. Mike Johnston’s set is kept simple with four wooden door frames, designed to look as though the wood came straight from the docks, that are mobile and used by the actors to establish new spaces. There are also seven canvases that hang in the back, each full of bright colours. Sherry Kinnear’s costume design is thematically modest with subdued colours and patterns. Morgan Jones’ direction emphasizes distance as a way to establish relationships and the non-verbal – what the characters don’t say, but perhaps want to say. The pace is steady, never too over-the-top unless the moment calls for it (like a big storm). The various elements work well to elevate the elegance of the text.
De Leon’s character has his reasons for doing and saying the things he does, and often he doesn’t feel the need to share them. There is a soft vulnerability under the surface, and De Leon shows it with a muted demeanor that feels more genuine than the jovial act that his character puts on for others. De Leon’s nuanced performance may just cause some men in the audience to phone their fathers after watching the play. And Kennell delivers a fine performance as a son who realizes that his father was a more complex person than he thought. The actor is able to turn on a dime between the character’s youthful naivety and mature reflection as an adult.
MacDonald succeeds at presenting a character whose well-intentioned actions could very well be perceived as antagonistic. The mother’s uncompromising will softens in personal moments, giving us a hint by the actress that her character is really not trying to be a bad person – she just wants her family to stay together. Percy delivers an intriguing performance as a fisherman troubled by too many years working on the open sea. His character speaks frankly about how dangerous the sea can be for fishermen, both physically and mentally, and yet he still goes to work everyday. Of course, he can’t afford not to work since he has to feed a very large family at home. And so what kind of an impact does that have on a person? The weight of such a heavy responsibility is expressed by the actor through brooding movement that conveys defeat, hopelessness, and maybe something darker within.
Theatre New Brunswick’s production of The Boat is a must-see.
Theatre New Brunswick’s The Boat runs March 9 – 18 in Fredericton at the Open Space Theatre. The production will travel to Halifax, Miramichi, Bathurst, Woodstock, and St. Andrews starting March 21st. Visit Theatre New Brunswick’s website for full details.