Magic has come to The Shaw. Not just pixies and red-headed faeries, banshees and werewolves that lurk above and below the plot, but on the Courthouse Theatre’s ever-flexible stage until October 7, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Belle Moral: A Natural History weaves its irrepressible spell and makes believers of us all.
The multi-layered reworked material (originally produced as The Arab’s Mouth in 1990) has found its voice and makes its points brilliantly. Over three fast-moving acts, art is pitted against science; truth struggles with lies; pride goes to bed with greed and humanity’s penchant to be “cruel to be kind” is explored with honesty, humour and pathos.
The turn-of-the-twentieth-century Scottish Manor is craftily rendered by Judith Bowden’s design and Kevin Lamotte’s mastery of light and dark. Swinging walls, rolling horned furniture and the all-important specimen jar (home to a human/canine ear) keep the production flowing easily from scene to scene. Whether in the study, drawing room or the secret-filled attic, the breadth of the country estate is as believable as the likelihood of hidden passageways that those who play fast and loose with reality must travel to protect the family shame.
Music also plays an important role in the collective suspension of disbelief. Composer/pianist Paul Sportelli’s able fingers and inventive mind have come up with an entrancing soundscape replete with a brooding “Waltz Macabre,” Satie-like, desolate underscoring—even an aural signpost of the Industrial Revolution as a trio of piano thirds heralds the passing of a train to begin Act III. All of this combines in a wonderfully eerie fashion to produce the canvas upon which the actors can play.
Belle Moral is home to the MacIsaacs. As the action begins, Father has just died; Mother long ago succumbed to a difficult labour. There are two children. Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne, too fast in her delivery to savour MacDonald’s insights and wit in the early going) is purposely single and studious (the aforementioned ear her current subject)—a modern woman whose life is driven by facts. Her younger brother Victor (played with unabashed enthusiasm by Jeff Meadows) wears his kilt “regulation,” prefers cafés to commerce and is haunted by the loss of his mom at childbirth.
Watching over the siblings is Aunt Flora (Donna Belleville, a marvel at every turn). Her re-interpretation of the English language adds many laughs even as her sense of duty to her late sister confounds and confuses her soul. The servants (Young Farleigh, masterfully given by Bernard Behrens and his grandson, Wee Farleigh whose Pan costume drew applause on its own) are judiciously used by MacDonald to both provide relief from their dysfunctional masters and mock the notion of classes while serving tea.
With the wayward Victor’s arrival home, Flora summons her father’s lawyer, Mr. Abbott (Graeme Somerville) to read the will. This causes much apprehension in the family physician, Dr. Reid (Peter Millard, whose rhythm couldn’t quite match his colleagues’). It’s the good doctor who has provided Pearl with the curious body part. Despite being a contemporary of MacIsaac Sr., Dr. Reid—after everyone learns the surprising conditions of the will—offers to wed the “cut … off at the ovaries” heiress, but without bedroom privileges.
Much mayhem ensues—not the least of it centres on the possibility that not all of the dearly departed are six feet under. As the plot heats up (with the nearly wordless Jessica Lowry showing an admirable range of character—both animal and human), the playwright’s deeper thoughts rise to the surface, seemingly unbidden.
In this era of racial profiling and the institutional warehousing of nature’s “freaks”—too often, young persons living with the effects of acquired brain injury are deposited in nursing homes for seniors—characters and audience alike are confronted with the horrors of such inhumanity and their catastrophic results. In this manner, the work becomes a timeless discussion of how we really treat one another.
Happily, director Alisa Palmer is on the same page. She has coaxed her talented ensemble into just the right mix of bare-assed humour (no exaggeration!) and introspective angst to effectively harvest the rich material that lies on every page. Not least of which is the oh-so-subtle mixture of music (“Au Claire de la Lune,” both sung and interweaved into the score), people (the mystery of Claire) and food (chocolate éclairs all around). Would that all such writing be as rich and satisfying. JWR