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by Robert Chafe
Theatre Newfoundland Labrador (Corner Brook)
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
January 10-14

(This is Jerry's review of the same production when it
played here as part of the
PuSh Festival in 2006.)

PuSh, Vancouver’s annual festival of local, national, and international theatre, is a modest affair.  It’s a smallish festival that doesn’t blow its own horn too loudly, doesn’t make great claims for its success, and yet manages to produce pretty spectacular results. So what better way to inaugurate PuSh 2006 than with a modest production of a modest play about a modest Canadian hero that adds up to nothing less than a glowing triumph?

Tempting Providence, written by Newfoundlander Robert Chafe and produced by Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, tells the story of Nurse Myra Bennett, who emigrated from England to Newfoundland’s remote Great Northern Peninsula in the 1920s to provide basic medical services to a vast region that had neither a doctor nor a nurse nor even a road.

Nurse, as she insists on being called even by the man who marries her, struggles in the play with her own culture shock and the resistance of the locals to a commanding woman From Away who has to overcome their folk prejudices.  Walking in summer, traveling by horse and sleigh in the brutal winter, she does everything from pulling teeth to birthing babies and, in the play’s one concession to high drama, sewing a man’s severed foot back on. Even after having children herself, she continues to go about her extraordinary business in the most matter-of-fact way, denying that she’s doing anything more than “being useful.”

The linear story is told on stage through the direct address of Nurse Myra (Deidre Gillard Rowlings) and her future husband Angus (Darryl Hopkins), and their interaction with the locals, all played by Melanie Caines and Robert Wyatt Thorne. The low-key narrative is lifted by lovely, funny writing.  The neighbour woman, in her lilting Newfoundland dialect, advises Nurse to earn the respect of the locals by learning practical domestic skills: “Yes girl, women round here got skills, do anything.  Knit a house they could.”  Nurse expresses her nagging melancholy in a kind of poetry: “I have a sad little sore little heart.”

Much of the play is carried by the beautifully understated performance of Rowlings as the stoic Nurse.  Caines is also very effective in the other female roles.  Director Jillian Keiley’s production imaginatively reflects Nurse Myra’s own modest can-do competency.  The simple set of a wooden table, four chairs and a white sheet is transformed by the actors in a series of choreographed movements into the elements of Nurse’s life.  In one sequence the sheet begins as a tablecloth, then becomes bread dough, her medical bag, a sheet across the legs of a woman giving birth, and the infant in swaddling. Sheet plus chair becomes a backpack, then a cradle.  Add the table and it’s a rowboat or a sleigh.

This is theatre of the imagination, a great kick-off for PuSh.

Jerry Wasserman

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