'Mary of Shanty Bay' by Leah Holder

Presented by Barrie's Theatre by the Bay in Shanty Bay AND in partnership with Theatre Collingwood

Photo courtesy of Theatre by the Bay website

Joe Szekeres

A lovely, inspiring and touching production told with grace and class by a committed cast who always remained believably active and present in the moment.

I applaud the theatre companies who like to share stories of local, historical individuals who have influenced the region in some important manner. What I’m especially enjoying is discovering parts of my province to which I would probably have never ventured if I didn’t have a specific purpose in mind.

Thank you to Barrie’s Theatre by the Bay for the invitation to see ‘Mary of Shanty Bay’, and what a picturesque spot it was albeit a sporadic and periodic heavy downpour as I drove up and back down the 400. Shanty Bay is just a mere five- seven-minute drive outside of Barrie.

As I watched this story unfold, I couldn’t help but keep making reference to Susanna Moodie’s ‘Roughing It in The Bush’ as she too came to this new world of Upper Canada to build a new life for herself. Like Mary Sophia Gapper, Susanna also had to endure back breaking work in the clearing of land to begin settling here in her new home just outside of what is known today as Peterborough, Ontario.

Although the title characters of both tales are women, I’m choosing not to call either Moodie or Gapper’s tales simply stories about women. If anything, the story of the building of Upper Canada was on the backs of women like Susanna and Mary who gave it their all to make a life for themselves here.

A bit of personal background research first about Mary Sophia Gapper’s story proved enlightening. The production was first presented in 2018 At the performance I attended last weekend, playwright Leah Holder appears as the title character. I like the fact that Theatre by the Bay wanted to revisit the story once again since our world has changed a great deal over the last two years.

‘Mary of Shanty Bay’ is based on Gapper’s real-life diary entries when she came to Canada in 1828. For ten years, she kept a detailed recorded account of her life in this area now known as Shanty Bay. Her trip to Canada was long travel via boat. Her day-to-day work on the farm was sometimes exhausting beyond measure but she knew she had the strength to continue moving forward. Her diary entries also recorded her discussions with close family members who also came to this country.

What was the piece de resistance for me to enjoy about my day up north? This production took place in the church Mary and her husband, Edward O’Brien, helped to build in the town of Shanty Bay. Mary's undying Christian faith plays a prominent role in this production, and I am pleased it does. We were invited at the intermission to pay our respects at their marked gravesite just outside the church. Most of the audience emerged at the intermission and filed past to pay their respects. It was and is the right thing to do.

The intimate playing space of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church believably brought me back to the mid-late 1820s. I still say period piece plays are a challenge to create a look that can whisk an audience back to another time; however, Lesley Coo’s diligent work in finding the props that amply filled the stage is quite extraordinary. Madeline Ius’s costume designs respectfully and finely reflect the time era.

Brenda Thompson’s set design amply fills the stage of the church for the distinctive playing eras. I especially liked what the benches and crates represented especially for some of the quick scene changes. Although the stage might or could appear initially cramped, Thompson was smart to fill it amply but I didn’t think it appeared overcrowded. I can only imagine how tight those first log homes must have been for settlers to this part of Upper Canada. Jonathan Killing’s lighting design agreeably captured the lighting effect of candles and either the rising or setting sun of the day.

Director Rochelle Reynolds maintains a gentle and compassionate hold on this story of a young woman who wants to make and mark her place within the new world of Canada. To me, it feels as if Reynolds wanted to ensure the presence of Mary’s voice is strongly heard and felt throughout Leah Holder’s charming and engaging script. Mary certainly didn’t fit into the mould of women at this time. She was unmarried when she arrived in the country. She wasn’t in a hurry to get married and she found it her duty to assist her brother, Southby on his farm and his wife, Fanny.

What I found to be appropriate and relevant was Mary’s marked reference and acknowledgment of the marginalized individuals upon her arrival in Canada. Another important step forward for Canadian playwrights moving forward in the truth and reconciliation to the First Nations individuals of this country.

Leah Holder is solidly terrific as the fiery and feisty Mary Gapper who knows who she is and what she wants. But there is also a very tender and compassionate side to her when she begins to recognize her growing attraction and affection for her future husband, Edward. Daniel Reale is a dashing-looking Edward who reveals a real tenderness for his wife and children one minute while at the same time showcasing his dramatic versatility regarding how slow it is to build the house he promises for his family.

Supporting characters Aidan Gouveia and Jessy Arden remain just as powerfully solid as Holder and Reale. Gouveia and Arden play multiple characters throughout and left me with some hauntingly resounding images in my mind as I write this today. As Mary’s brother, Southby, becomes gravely ill, Gouveia heartfully and painfully re-creates a man on his deathbed who becomes delusional. Wonderful work here.

Arden plays three women all with varying personality types, and she most definitely captured their hearts and spirit. The one haunting image that remained in my mind was Arden’s gut-wrenching performance as Mrs. Monck whom we are led to believe has been assaulted and abused by her husband. Arden's eyes bravely captured the fear, the pain and the turmoil in which Mrs. Monck found herself with her alcoholic husband. Again, another pivotal moment that deserves to be recognized.

‘Mary of Shanty Bay’ remains a definite must-see. It’s another of my picks for this fall season.
Running Time: approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

‘Mary of Shanty Bay’ runs to October 1st at St. Thomas Anglican Church, 28 Church Street, Shanty Bay. A 2 pm show has been added on September 28 due to high demand. The production plays in Shanty Bay until October 1 and will then tour to Collingwood, in partnership with Theatre Collingwood with show dates between October 5th and 8th. To purchase tickets and more information, visit theatrebythebay.com .

‘Mary of Shanty Bay’ by Leah Holder
Directed by Rochelle Reynolds
Set Designer: Brenda Thompson
Lighting Designer: Jonathan Killing
Props: Lesley Coo
Costumes: Madeline Ius
Composer and Sound Designer: Adrian Shepard-Gannski

Performers: Leah Holder, Daniel Reale, Aidan Gouveia, Jessy Arden

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