Review by E. Lisa Moses
Based on a true story, fit for the finest crime novels, the Blyth Festival’s world premiere of The Last Donnelly Standing resurrects a sinister slice of 19th-century Ontario history. Written by Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt – well known Canadian playwrights, actors and artistic directors, the one-person show challenges the audience to ride along with a tortured soul trying to make sense of his tragic life. Beth Kates’s clever set evokes the spirit of raw and rustic rural Ontario, whether it’s the family homestead, the local watering hole or the big horse-drawn wagon that hauls commercial loads.
Special effects – fire and smoke; the clip-clop of horses; and chugging of trains – bring the era to life.
Garratt, who stars as Robert (Bob) Donnelly, warns us at the outset that if we have come to make sense of the story, we are in the wrong place. Post-traumatic stress may be underlying Bob’s erratic behaviour due to a number of factors, such as his position as the youngest son in the most reviled clan of the day. The condition may have been exacerbated by two years of hard labour at the Kingston penitentiary, the massacre of his family by a local mob that also burned down the family homestead in Biddulph township, and the hideous deaths of his siblings and relatives.
The play opens with Bob back in town after the massacre, placing rocks at the four corners of the site where his childhood home had stood. While other surviving Donnellys had high-tailed it out of the area, he stays in Lucan to live among his murderous neighbours – and exact revenge by living well.
Garratt’s powerful performance engages the audience in an emotional gallop that alternately humanizes and demonizes Bob. It stirs empathy for the son who is traumatized by a series of tragedies, yet reminds us that he is one of those Donnellys who let nothing stand in the way of their goals. For example, when competition for his haulage business arrives in the form of the Salvation Army, he coldly burns down their headquarters and invites them to leave.
Bob continues to hurtle along the rails and the roads to success, but eventually serves a term in the nuthouse, then dies of a stroke. And while he should be resting in peace, his spirit continues the conversations from the grave. No rest for the wicked.
The Last Donnelly Standing is playing at the Blyth Festival until September 2nd.