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Tim Campbell and Cara Rebecca in Fall On Your Knees.DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

  • Title: Fall On Your Knees: Part One and Part Two
  • Written by: Hannah Moscovitch
  • Director: Alisa Palmer
  • Actors: Tim Campbell, Samantha Hill, Deborah Hay, Amaka Umeh
  • Company: Canadian Stage in co-production with Vita Brevis Arts, National Arts Centre, Neptune Theatre and Grand Theatre
  • Venues: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto from Jan. 20 to Feb. 5; Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Feb. 10 to March 5; National Arts Centre in Ottawa, March 8 to 25; and the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., March 29 to April 2, 2023

Critic’s Pick

“They’re all dead now.”

The gone but unforgettable Piper family of Fall On Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s enduringly popular 1996 novel that begins with that line, has lived only on the page and in readers’ imaginations for the past quarter century.

But now that complicated Cape Breton clan can be found on stage, too, resurrected for the book’s first adaptation of any kind – a six-hour production spread over two separate performances currently having its world premiere at Canadian Stage in Toronto.

At the striking start of the show, the characters who populate the Pipers’ extended and gnarled family tree sit down in 15 chairs curved across the wide stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre: 14 wooden ones and a wingback occupied by the family’s piano-tuning patriarch (and perpetual elephant in the room), James.

These souls are stuck together in the type of theatrical purgatory where stories and secrets are retold night after night; they look, too, as if they might be trapped in the cabinet of an upright piano in Camellia Koo’s excellent expressionistic set made up of oversized piano wire strung from floor to fly tower.

In her novel, MacDonald told the Pipers’ trauma-filled tale, set in the early 20th century, in mostly chronological order, with certain scenes repeated from different characters’ perspectives.

Fall On Your Knees ensemble with Janelle Cooper at centre.DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

Director Alisa Palmer and playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who are also both credited as co-creators, attempt this at times – but generally find other, more theatrical ways to make scenes similarly slippery.

That begins with James Piper (Tim Campbell, giving the performance of his career), a young man of Celtic stock, meeting Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca), the eldest daughter of a Lebanese Canadian family, after she sneaks up and plays a key on the piano he is tuning and a hammer hits him in the face.

This is left to ring romantically as a meet-cute encounter for a moment – until, it is revealed not long after, through dialogue, that James is 19 and Materia, disturbingly, just 12.

The actors playing both characters are adults, so you don’t know until you know; Palmer and Moscovitch play a similar game of show-then-tell to shift the meaning of moments (and demonstrate how society tries not to see domestic abuse) with their audience throughout.

James and Materia elope and – he already an orphan, she now declared dead by her father (Antoine Yared) – quickly start a new family to replace the ones that they have lost.

First comes Kathleen Piper (Samantha Hill), who grows up to be a singer with perfect pitch and whom Materia tries to learn to love more and James tries to learn to adore less.

Later on, in quick succession, come Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright), who grows up religious and believing she is good, and Frances (Deborah Hay, a stand-out as always), who grows up with a streak of mischief and believing herself bad.

Finally, on the darkest night in the family’s history, comes Lily (Eva Foote), who survives polio and near-drownings and grows up – well, in this adaptation anyway – to seem largely a symbol of the possibility of healing. It doesn’t help that the ambiguity that surrounds Lily’s parentage on the page – particularly in Frances’s racing mind – is an element almost impossible to translate exactly to the visual medium of theatre.

Deborah Hay as Frances.DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

The Canadian Gothic atmosphere found in the novel does, however, thanks to Leigh Ann Vardy’s ghostly lighting and the unsettling underscoring from a live band based around the moody obsessiveness of Moonlight Sonata (James’s favourite tune for tuning).

Fall On Your Knees depicts multiculturalism existing in Canada long before official multiculturalism: In addition to the “mixed” Pipers, Cape Bretoners such as the Mahmouds (Yared and Maryem Tollar), a Black couple named Ginger and Adelaide (played by Tony Ofori and Janelle Cooper) and a Jewish family called the Luvovitzs (Diane Flacks and Drew Moore) are all important to the plot.

Being set mostly before, during and after the First World War, and exploring racial divides and convergences both psychological and physical, the story can seem a kind of counter to the once-dominant nationalist narratives about a Canadian identity forged through shared bloodshed on battlefields in that conflict. (Similarly, it challenges the idea that the violence of that war really ended in 1918: James returns home, like so many men to their wives and children and communities, like an “unexploded shell.”)

Moscovitch and Palmer’s adaptation of this rich, resonant material – with many co-producers to which it tours next in Halifax, Ottawa and London – is of a size and scale rarely feasible financially in English-Canadian theatre.

The playwright captures complex, layered relationships in economical interactions – and is not afraid to let her characters, even those with most cause to be seen as victims, be unlikeable.

The director, meanwhile, effectively replaces some cut episodes from the novel with stage imagery. Notably, there’s a gorgeous scene involving a rolling piano that concisely covers James’s time in the trenches in mere seconds; what remains missing does not feel like it is missing.

A clear overarching flaw, however, lies in the show’s structure. The first part is lopsided, with a two-hour section followed by an unsatisfying coda. The second part, by contrast, features three sections of roughly equal length that breeze by. But the intermissions come out of nowhere like union-mandated breaks.

The primary victims of this wonkiness are Mercedes and Frances, as the meat of their complicated story arcs uneasily straddles the show’s big split. I guess three two-hour shows would be unfeasible.

Ultimately, however, I came out feeling this was only of minor concern in an adaptation of this length that somehow never really felt long – especially given the first and last two hours were so engrossing.

In the final segments, the creators allow some brightness in as the action moves ahead to another island, Manhattan, and an abundance of opera and jazz almost transforms the show into a musical.

A flashback kicked off by a discovered diary, this section concerns Kathleen’s time studying singing. It’s no surprise Hill, who has played parts like Christine in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, has the voice, but her acting is a revelation; she gives a brave, deep performance, not afraid of mixing ugly notes with the beautiful ones.

Then Amaka Umeh, underused for so long in the show, finally steps out of the shadows to poignantly play a pianist named Rose who helps the heart and hope of a difficult story come into full view. The ending is a cavalcade of emotions; the final image is heart-wrenching and humanistic.

While I may not have fallen on my knees at the end, I certainly didn’t hesitate to get up on my feet.