Rebuilding burnt bridges in small-town drama

Daniel MacIvor’s touching play, Marion Bridge, perfectly captures a troubled family dynamic as it follows three sisters who return home to Cape Breton to be with their dying mother. The eldest sister and nun, Theresa (Alex Duchemin), returns home with Agnes (Jane Rempel), the alcoholic middle sister, and Louise (Gabrielle Gagnon), the youngest and most eccentric. Once reunited, the sisters evaluate their current situations and try to resolve their childhood traumas. Marion Bridge shows that while life brings its own hardships, the bond of family can remain steadfast.

I had already seen Marion Bridge on multiple stages before I saw it on Thursday, Oct. 27 in the Motyer-Fancy Theatre. In this staging, I was especially interested to see how young actors would take on the task of playing characters much older than themselves. Ultimately, this staging was a mediocre attempt at exploring the relationships between family and small life in Cape Breton.

Marion Bridge begins as Agnes arrives home to her mother late at night. In a monologue, Agnes explains a recurring dream of drowning at a beach. Performed by Rempel, this is the first – and best – of the three monologues that give insight into each sister’s character. Unfortunately, midway through Rempel’s monologue, a backstage crew member was visible on stage, diverting the audience’s attention.

Anna Shepard, a fourth-year drama student at Mt. A, said, “During scene changes there would be tremendous gaps where assistant stage managers would be moving things that were not necessary and halted the energy of the play.”

The pre-existing tension between the sisters and their dying mother quickly becomes evident after all three return home. The sisters fall back into old habits and old arguments.

Paul A del Motte/Submitted
Paul A del Motte/Submitted

“Gabrielle [who plays Louise], had some really great moments,” said Shepard. “[Her acting] was something that I really enjoyed.”

Although I’m a stickler for age-appropriate casting, I don’t believe that experience necessarily comes with age. When this production’s actors interacted with each other, they kept tension and emotions high. Unfortunately, the actors did not successfully develop their characters throughout the play. Because the dialogue was written for older actors, this execution was less than convincing. This may have been a result of time constraints when working with a big text.

Often performed with minimal set design and props, MacIvor’s play allows audience members to experience his writing intimately rather than being distracted by over-the-top sets. Mount Allison’s production went too big with the set, preventing the audience from paying attention to the heart of the story.

The gigantic, attention-grabbing set design failed to bolster the intimacy of the sisters’ interactions. While aesthetically beautiful and impressively crafted, the set – picture a life-sized doll house with a living room, kitchen, dining room and upper floor – was impractical for live theatre, since the living room and kitchen were actually built into the frame of the house. When characters interacted inside of these rooms, I could not see them because the set was in the way.

Traditionally, if actors are interacting off-stage, they speak loudly from backstage to imply that they are in different rooms of the house. In this production, however, certain audience members could see the actors while others could not. This made it unclear whether the audience was supposed to see the actors interacting physically, or if their exchanges were just meant to be heard.

Although music and sound engineering helped set the tone for each scene, there were many rookie mistakes that could have been avoided. Calls for transitions almost always arrived late, scene transitions lasted too long and were over-complicated, and the scenes meant to evoke the most emotion stagnated to the point that audience members lost interest.

“The pacing of the show was very strange – it was very similar throughout the dialogue,” said Shepard.

I asked a variety of audience members for an interview for this article, but was faced with a great deal of hesitancy. Shepard offered a reason for this:

“In general, I feel there’s an issue in the drama department where we’re too scared to criticize others’ work and too hesitant to say what we didn’t like, or what could be changed so we can work better [in the future]. This [show] is a perfect example, where a professor is directing a show and everyone feels that they shouldn’t say anything directly to them. No one wants to [give their opinion], but feedback is something we need in art and in an institution of learning art. A lot of people think that if they say something negatively about the show that a professor worked on, [the professor] might get mad at them. It’s a fear we all have.”

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