Review by Shibley Ahmed
On entering the foggy Factory Theatre Main Stage there seemed to be a sense of anticipation amongst the crowd. Opening nights will undoubtedly do that for any production but even more so for one that has been chosen worthy enough to take its act to the National Arts Centre in March. Producer/Actor duo, Michele Smith & Dean Gilmour’s TAKE ME BACK TO JEFFERSON takes William Faulkner’s much-revered 1930 character-driven novel, “As I Lay Dying” and provides a realistically immersive journey back in time to the old south.
Photo courtesy of Katherine Fleitas
We enter into the lives of a quite hapless family and their one hell of a funeral procession.
The premise of this play emerges from within the death of Addie (Smith), the matriarch of the Bundren family, and her dying wish to be buried away from her home in Yoknapatawpha County and into neighboring Jefferson. This seemingly straightforward request is made all the more challenging due to terrain that is very rugged; mules that aren’t rugged enough and circumstances that become rather unfortunate… rather often. The family, led by Anse (Gilmour), the stoic and selfish father of five, immediately begins running into trouble as soon as they hop into their casket-carrying wagon. Actually it’s the burden of the casket and the body within it, with its ever-increasing stench that forces our characters into immediacy and at times, comically poor decisions.
The manner in which these circumstances play out on stage is what draws us to this story and what ultimately keeps us entertained through to the end. I must admit, for a play that focuses on grief and mourning I was completely sideswiped by the amount of physical acting involved and the creative methods used to showcase those skills. Smith and Gilmour do a fantastic job creating scenes which test each performers range. Use of “mouth-manipulated sounds” to project the click-clack of a horses hoof to the bang of hammer-to-nail are mixed in with high flying movements to keep the fadeouts short. There were even a few “slow-motion” sequences, where little intricacies would be easier to spot.
The stage, though barren of set design was littered with great performances. Ben Muir as Jewel unequivocally had us all believing that there was an uncontrollable 6-foot horse just in front of us. His friendship with said creature and dedication to his late mother’s wishes carried the emotional side of the story. Dewy Dell, played by Nina Gilmour was cute and confused in her attempts to abort the love child beating within her belly. Powerful yet controlled performances also come from Julian De Zotti (Darl) and Daniel Roberts (Vardaman) who respectively portray a man battling with his inner demons and a child trying to make sense of the irrevocability that is death. Finally Dan Watson as Cash and Farmer Gillespie had the entire audience feeling sorry for the misfortunes that plagued him. A broken leg with a cement cast and a barn set ablaze is a lot for any man to handle. The complexity of taking a work that has so many differing viewpoints was handled expertly and the smoothness in the delivery was something to behold.
TAKE ME BACK TO JEFFERSON spans the moral compass from remarkable stupidity to unwavering heroism to outrageous cruelty and betrayal. Constant narration changes and the varying accounts held by characters fraught with peril prove decisively important in piecing together a tale of 7 individuals who just happen to share the same last name. At the very heart of it, it is a story about family…if you want to call them that. Yoknapatawpha & Jefferson Counties are at the “Factory Theatre” until Nov. 23rd. Tickets 416-504-9971