Review by E. Lisa Moses
The world premiere of Maja Ardal’s play, The Hero of Hunter Street, tackles one of the biggest industrial catastrophes in Canadian history. Massive explosions, and a four-day fire in a Peterborough, Ont. Quaker Oats plant, killed 24 men 100 years ago, and left the community reeling. Directed by Kim Blackwell, the play at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook leverages the talents of 47 professional and volunteer actors – from an infant to an octogenarian. Their 75 characters treat the poignant story, intricate characterizations and profound emotions with sensitivity and grace.
To keep the sad saga from descending too far into gloom, Ardal intersperses the tragic messages with carefully crafted, well-timed comic episodes and charming ballads – even dancing – that keep the audience’s tears at bay until the last heart-rending scene.
At the Winslow Farm on summer afternoons, the courtyard of two adjoining barns serves as the intimate set. Lighting and acoustics are supplied by Nature, not technology. Encircled by bleachers seating the 360-strong audience, the stage expands as required into the surrounding wheat field. In this case, the field becomes the scene of startling explosions and a parking spot for antique fire trucks on loan from the Canadian Fire Fighters Museum in Port Hope. Throughout the play, Argentinian swallows zoom in and out of the barn windows past the actors’ heads while robins chirp in the meadow. The actors aren’t fazed. The audience is amused.
This complex tale is told through the lens of a local Irish family, the O’Briens, who have an uneasy relationship with their Italian neighbours, fear authority figures, and hope for a better life. The plot confronts issues such as immigration, racism, feminism, religion, poverty, and incompetence at both corporate and political levels. These issues prove to be as relevant today as they were in 1916.
Connecting the dots for the audience throughout the performance is “The Man” – narrator Ryan Hollyman, who shadows every scene, keeps the action going like a metronome, and occasionally serves as a prop. Mac Fyfe plays Dennis O’Brien (the Hero) as well as the hilarious Ajax the Strong Man. Monica Dottor doubles as O’Brien’s frazzled wife, Laura, and Ajax’s silly sidekick, Gertie. Liam Davidson shines as their wistful teenaged son, George O’Brien, who valiantly resurrects his father’s spirit and becomes one of the many other heroes of the time. And in contrast to the reticent Irish women, Hilary Wear is droll as Sophia Loreno, the tough Italian matriarch who fears nothing and rules the roost at home and at work.
The fictionalized play is based on the true family history and recollections of Lindsay, Ont. resident Lorna Green, who assumes several roles. She recounts how after the fire, her grandmother Laura O’Brien would linger in the doorway waiting for her husband Dennis to return. Lorna’s father George O’Brien would wander the streets of Peterborough looking for his “da.” And while Dennis’s body was never found, local lore has his spirit walking the factory floor to this day.
The Hero of Hunter Street is playing at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook until July 23. The theatre celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.