In Steady Theatre’s Listen to the Wind are, clockwise from top, Sam Vigneault, Amy Weisbrot, Stepheny Hunter and Rachel Lloyd.
Steady Theatre’s production of Canadian playwright James Reaney’s 1972 Listen to the Wind is an intriguing, theatrical experience twinning location with content.
In the play-within-a-play children stage a Victorian melodrama in an old house much like the March sisters do in Little Women. This show, whose short sold-out run ends tonight, is staged in an ornate 1857 mansion on Halifax’s Brunswick Street.
The audience waits in the parlour until it is guided up two flights of stairs to an attic full of doors with a mysterious ladder to the roof.
After an intermission with snacks including just-baked chocolate chip cookies, the audience goes down to the basement, fully finished but dark and gothic feeling, then goes back upstairs.
Director Julia Schultz is a Dalhousie English and theatre graduate, Steady Theatre’s artistic director and a co-producer of the play. She directed Taylor Olsen in the award-winning production of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster at the 2019 Halifax Fringe Festival.
She is a director to watch. To manage a cast of 12 in tight spaces with many exits and entrances, many sound cues, choral speaking and singing, and different accents and to make it all work rapidly and rather seamlessly is quite a feat.
It takes a while to get into this unusual, old-fashioned, enchanted story twinning a 1930s time period with a Victorian melodrama. The playwright was interested in the creative act and the power of the imagination. When the audience is urged to “listen to the wind” it asked to unlock the door to its imagination.
Owen is a sickly boy whose mother is leaving his father (Henricus Gielis) and is delighted to be visited by three friends, sent away by their parents for the summer. The four decide to put on a play based on the Victorian novel Owen is reading, a tale of betrayal, thwarted ambition, grief, violence and lost love complete with poisonings and dead babies.
(In fact, Reaney was inspired by his childhood reading of Rider Haggard’s Dawn and the Bronte sisters’ work including Wuthering Heights.)
As the children rehearse and perform the play they invent worlds out of nothing with a great use of sound and cloth for a tempest-at-sea scene in the dimly-lit basement.
They escape their reality but learn how to confront their problems through the extremes of human experience in the fantasy world.
This is an ensemble production requiring vocal and physical dexterity and intensity from the 12 professional actors and theatre school graduates. They bring the fantastic world of the melodrama alive and generally maintain its tone, with a bit of over-baking.
There are some strong leads, particularly Sam Vigneault as Owen, Briony Merritt as Owen’s conflicted and cold mother as well as the manipulative Lady Eldred, Peter Sarty as Mitch the gravedigger and the twisted father Piers, Lou Campbell as the father’s nasty, ambitious cousin, Douglas, a Heathcliff-type character, Stepheny Hunter as the beautiful,motherless, victimized Angela, Noella Murphy as the maid Martha and Abby Weisbrot as the wronged Danish wife to Piers.
The lighting design by Alison Crosby is highly effective in creating atmosphere and bringing imagined pictures to life.
This production is ambitious and the play does come with a warning that it is long – three hours from start to finish with two intermissions. Once you get into the story, it moves quickly and you want to see it out. Not to say that Listen to the Wind couldn’t have been edited, particularly in the first act.
It’s interesting to see a new independent theatre company, whose work is site-specific, choose a dreamy, poetic play distant from today’s world but fascinating from the perspective of finding truth in imagination and in different time periods and literary genres. Why is historical fiction so popular? It illuminates the human soul.