By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Every word I have spoken the wind has taken, as it will take me. As it will take my grandchildren’s children, their heads full of fragments and my face not among those.”
In his poem Her Mark, the celebrated Newfoundland writer Michael Crummey conjured his mysterious great-grandmother who vanished into the shadows of the past leaving nary a trace — save an X on a 1934 deed of property.
It’s that poem (from Crummey’s 1998 volume Hard Light), a moving elegy to what’s lost, that gives its name to the play opening Friday at the Orange Hall in Strathcona.
Her Mark is the work of Whizgiggling Productions, an Edmonton indie theatre devoted to work from or about Newfoundland (Salt Water Moon, The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever), that atmospherically harsh and beautiful island stronghold in the north Atlantic. And the idea of fashioning a play, with characters and a storyline, from Crummey’s poems is the inspiration of Whizgiggling’s Cheryl Jameson and the playwright/ director/actor/designer Trevor Schmidt, artistic director of Northern Light Theatre.
Together they culled volumes of Crummey’s poems. And together they adapted his poems for the stage, in a play about Ellen Rose Crummey and her three daughters living a hard life on The Rock in the ’20s and ’30s. It was one of the sleeper hits of the 2014 Fringe.
“I liked the stories they told, and the strong character voices,” says Jameson of her attraction to Crummey’s poems as raw material for a piece of theatre with dimensional characters. The St. John’s theatre company Artistic Fraud, as she points out, has done three collaborations with Crummey’s poetry. “I like the way the poems reveal what it was to be a Newfoundlander back then, a living eulogy…. I like the way they’re not just monologues: they lend themselves to beautiful, dramatic storytelling.”
The course of history operates in a different time frame in Newfoundland. “My mother-in law’s family didn’t have electricity till she was 16,” says Jameson, a Westerner who lived in Newfoundland for four years, long enough to miss it when she left. “My father-in-law had to bring a stick of wood (his contribution to the heating) to school when he was a kid…. And these are people who’re just in their seventies.”
Her Mark has been re-imagined by Schmidt and Jameson for the revival in the moody, wood-lined confines of the historic Orange Hall. “I wanted it to feel like an old schoolhouse,” says Jameson.
And what was a chamber piece for four women and a violinist has been expanded. In the 2014 version, in which Jameson played the eldest of the sisters, “we talked about our brother.” This time we actually meet Hollis (Matthew Lindholm), via poems that reveal what Jameson calls “male narrative.” Gradually a Newfoundland family emerges, struggling to retain a precarious way of life.
Thanks to violinist Astrid Sparks, there’s flavourful music, “sometimes just four bars, sometimes whole songs,” as Jameson explains of a score that includes both accompanied and acapella numbers. In all, there are “probably 30 pieces or so, music and poems” in Her Mark, she thinks.
“Everyone gets at least three; sometimes a poem might be three lines (of speech), sometimes a whole page…. The language is so beautiful, they don’t have to be long.”
Theatre: Whizgiggling Productions
Written by: Michael Crummey
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Linda Grass, Lora Brovold, Jayce McKenzie, Matthew Lindholm, Cheryl Jameson
Where: Orange Hall, 10335 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through Feb. 10
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)