A Scottish-Canadian clan wrestles with its family lore.
Tarragon Theatre’s fall 2012 season opens with David S. Young’s theatrical adaptation of Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief. It’s about the clan MacDonald, Cape Bretoners who trace their proud lineage back to Calum Ruadh, who came from Scotland to Canada in 1779. It’s a play steeped both in history and myth. It’s also a play with a history at Tarragon, having premiered there in 2004, when it was directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon’s artistic director. No Great Mischief has travelled elsewhere in Canada and beyond in the past decade. Now it’s back, with a large ensemble, to tell the MacDonald family’s tragic and sprawling tale in stories and song.
R. H. Thomson plays Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged father of two with a dental practice in the GTA. He spends his weekends driving to Toronto to visit his much older brother, Calum MacDonald (David Fox), who lives in squalid conditions in a rooming house in Toronto. Calum’s nearly done drinking himself to death, and isn’t able to carry on a conversation without some alcohol in him, which Alexander reluctantly brings. With a bit of drink in him, Calum begins to reel off stories of the family’s history and lineage.
Alexander will be our chief narrator for the play, but nearly every character is a storyteller in his or her own way. (As Alexander says, the characters are involved in “perpetuating our own small histories.”) There’s his folksy and irrepressible Grandpa (John Dolan), and his patient Grandma (the excellent Nicola Lipman, regrettably the clan’s only on-stage female member). There’s also Alexander’s “Serious Grandfather” (J.D. Nicholsen), a gruff carpenter who instills in a young Alexander a love both for the clan’s history and for learning. And then there are cousins and brothers played by the rest of the ensemble, who also keep the proceedings going with live musical accompaniment. But chief among them all is Calum, a man who’s forced by a family tragedy to become responsible for his brothers, and who is idolized by a younger Alexander.
Despite this being an ensemble drama, David Fox is the star and standout. The veteran actor, older than present-day Calum is supposed to be, invests his character, a brawler and leader of men, with great vitality, even in younger incarnations. The complex bond between Calum and Alexander is the production’s greatest strength. (Fox and Thomson both originated their roles.)
While the play doesn’t exactly falter when the spotlight isn’t on the two and their bond, it loses steam. The story seems to struggle under the weight of so much family history and exposition. It’s all engrossing, but the themes of pride—both justified and overweening—and loss are never quite so acute as when Fox and Thomson are the ones articulating them to (or about) each other.
It wouldn’t do to spoil the quote the play’s title is drawn from, but it’s a revealing one. It both deflates the family and their fierce heritage, and becomes a point of pride they boast of, despite it becoming sadly prophetic. Alexander, as the one clan member to become educated and ascend to a much higher socioeconomic standing, finds himself unable to relate his family history to his own children. But we the audience are richer for being able to hear, in his memories, the voices and stories of people who may soon pass into legend themselves.
Tarragon was previously misspelled in the opening paragraph. The correction has been made above.