All in the family: Ryan history is onstage at the Fringe

Sadie Bowling, Kate Ryan, Emma Wilmott in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls,

Something big and important, something you could call life-changing, happened to Kate Ryan 31 years ago. And it sheds light, both the theatrical and the personal kind, on why her theatre company, The Plain Janes, is doing a straight play at the Fringe, along with the sort of off-centre musical that is its more usual fare.   

Back to 1986. It was a family affair. Kate and her sister Bridget appeared with their actor mother Maralyn in a production directed by their father Tim, Ryans all. The play was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, a wrenching 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winner by American playwright Paul Zindel. His breakthrough into the big time, culled from his own experience, was an exploration of family dysfunction: an embittered and controlling widowed mother, and her two teenaged daughters.

“It was a thrilling time,” says Ryan recalling her teen self in the production. “A huge turning point!”

Not that the theatre life was a discovery. She and her sister had grown up in rehearsal halls, when the Ryans lived (and started theatre companies) in Cleveland. They’d been in musicals; Maralyn had founded the St. Albert Children’s Theatre, and regularly directed kids in big Broadway musicals and plays.

“But it was our first time working with mom as an actor, our first time working with Tim as a director.And it was terrifying!” she laughs. “He demanded a lot from us…. No concessions! He was all about respecting the work, what the world of the play needed. And I realized if you choose to be an artist, this is what you commit to….”

Kate Ryan, Maralyn Ryan, Bridget Ryan in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, 1986. Photo supplied.

“I remember mom saying ‘it’s not going to be easy’. She remembers going backstage, and thinking how hard it is to be this woman, to live her….”

Ryan is finding this out first-hand. This time she plays Beatrice the monster mom in Amy DeFelice’s Plain Janes Fringe production of Marigolds. And Ryan’s teenaged daughter Emma Wilmott, newly graduated from Vic (the performing arts high school) and fresh from a summer theatre intensive at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) in London, is playing the role she once had: Ruth, the daughter most damaged by her mother’s hatred of the world. Sadie Bowling plays Tillie, the shy daughter who rises above the toxic environment by blooming.

“Tim didn’t rehearse us together; he kept us apart,” recalls Ryan. “Same thing with (director) Amy and I this summer…. (The play) is written that way. The mother isolates herself from her daughters; her connections are full of conflict..”

Ryan was a theatre kid; how could you be a Ryan and not be immersed? I remember Maralyn once telling me the relief of working with other Ryans on a production was that at least everybody in the house had anxiety about the same show. But, says Kate, “I didn’t know what it really meant to be an actor, a theatre artist…. After Marigolds I knew I wanted to be an actor, to go to Juilliard.”

So her father, who started the theatre arts program at MacEwan, took her, at 17, to New York to audition. “The nerve of it!” she laughs. “And the disappointment when it didn’t work out! But I did it! I picked myself up after that…. This business is so cruel, so hard on the soul. I see that in Emma, the stress, the disappointment, the dreams of success.”   

Beatrice, an isolationist steeped in rancour, has the configuration of a monster. But, like Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ A Glass Menagerie, she has a past full of struggles and disappointments, says Ryan. “In the dark days of parenting, I’ve felt that myself: why is the world so much happier than I am? The woman goes to the darkest places.”

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Ryan laughs. “That, and learning Sondheim.”

Which explains, in a roundabout way, why Ryan spent a morning at home last week, waiting for the arrival of a cat skeleton for the show. You can get anything at Amazon. 

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds runs at Walterdale Theatre (Stage 3) Aug. 18 to 27.

Tim Ryan and Maralyn Ryan in The Apple Tree, Cleveland 1973. Photo supplied.

Madelaine Knight in The Apple Tree, The Plain Janes at the Fringe. Photo by db photographics.

A CODA: Meanwhile, there’s a Ryan history attached to the Janes’ other Fringe show, too, a witty little 1966 musical by the storied Fiddler on the Roof/ She Loves Me team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. Ryan’s father and mother starred in a 1973 production of The Apple Tree in Cleveland, before they arrived here, and started making theatres, and theatre companies. 

Dave Horak of Edmonton Actors Theatre, Ryan’s brother-in-law, is directing The Apple Tree, in a production starring Graham Mothersill and Madelaine Knight as the world’s first couple Adam and Eve, and Jocelyn Ahlf as the Snake. It runs at the Varscona (stage 12) starting Thursday. 

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