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No Great Mischief: A litany of sorrows, but never truly moving

3 out of 4 stars

No Great Mischief
Written by
David S. Young
Directed by
Richard Rose
David Fox, R.H. Thomson
Tarragon Theatre
Runs Until
Sunday, October 21, 2012

"We have our rainy days," says Calum, the eldest of the ill-starred MacDonald lads, referring to his family's fortunes in David S. Young's 2004 adaptation of Alistair MacLeod's novel No Great Mischief.

He's not kidding. Disaster has fairly drenched this branch of the MacDonald clan. Their tales of woe stretch from their Highland ancestor's death-blighted voyage out of Scotland, to terrible accidents in the icy waters off Cape Breton Island and down the mineshafts in Elliot Lake, Ont. The dark side of MacLeod's book hangs so heavily over the first part of Tarragon Theatre's season-opening revival that when the funniest character, the MacDonalds' jovial Grandpa, suddenly barks, "Enough sad stories!" you want to respond "Amen!"

Things do get livelier in Act 2 – thanks largely to a rip-roaring musical interlude (followed, of course, by another tragedy) – but Richard Rose's otherwise capable production never really lifts our spirits. It's weighed down, not just by the tragic stuff, but by the text itself.

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I didn't see Rose's original Tarragon staging eight years ago, but I did review the published play. Back then, I praised Young's expert pruning and shaping of MacLeod's novel into a viable dramatic work. Seeing it on the boards, however, I wonder if the adaptation isn't too wordy and driven too much by the narration of Alexander, the youngest and luckiest of the MacDonalds. He's the one who escaped the hardships of Cape Breton to become a prosperous middle-aged dentist in Windsor.

The play is framed by one of Alexander's weekend forays to Toronto to see the much older Calum – now a pathetic alcoholic living out his final days in a flophouse off Spadina Avenue. Alexander (R.H. Thomson) supplies his sad sibling with lubricating liquor and in return, Calum (David Fox) recounts their family's stormy past. Swept up by his memories, the decrepit drunk is again a wild, headstrong youth who, after their parents died, took off with his two other brothers to eke out a rugged existence on the island. Little Alexander, meanwhile, was left behind to enjoy a cozier life with his doting grandparents.

It is only years later, after Alexander has graduated from university, that he really comes to know Calum. His older brothers are now working as hard-rock miners in Elliot Lake, under Calum's expert guidance, and Alexander joins them one fateful summer. It's then that the rivalry between the MacDonalds and a French-Canadian crew – like a latter-day re-enactment of their ancestors' battle on the Plains of Abraham – comes to a violent head.

Thomson and Fox are revisiting the roles they played in the 2004 production. The former imbues his narration with Alexander's cautious, precise personality – the traits that, he explains, make him a good dentist. At times, however, he sounds too choppy. Fox is perfect as the old, washed-up Calum, shakily slurping booze from a soup bowl. But he can't really convey the young, vigorous Calum, and instead we're left to imagine him.

Most of the show's bright moments come from John Dolan, who twinkles merrily as the jolly, joking Grandpa. Nicola Lipman's Grandma, a font of homespun wisdom, serves as his wry foil. J.D. Nicholsen is a figure of quiet authority as the MacDonalds' maternal Serious Grandfather, from whom Alexander inherits his fastidious streak.

The Grandfather is also a repository of Gaelic lore and songs, sung here by Nicholsen and the seven other cast members. Music permeates the show. The actors hum Mike Ross's score and two, Daniel Giverin and Stephen Guy-McGrath, also play fiddles – in an inspired touch, even using them to create the noise of cracking ice. Other musical instruments hang enticingly from the fog-hued walls of Charlotte Dean's roomy set. In that second-act interlude, everybody finally grabs one for a jam session in the mining camp. It's a spontaneous display of exuberance that recalls the impromptu dance scene in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. It's also a reminder that playwright Young is the co-author of that rousing rock-gospel musical Fire.

Graeme S. Thomson's lighting and Todd Charlton's sound design do much to put us on the wind-and-rain-swept Atlantic coast or down in the murk of the mines. There's no shortage of atmosphere, but still there are times when the story just doesn't rise from the page. And despite its litany of sorrows, this show is never as moving as you'd expect. This is no great Mischief, merely a good one.

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