'The Cavan Blazers' by Robert Winslow
Now onstage at 4th Line Theatre, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook.
Credit: Wayne Eardley. Photo of the 2023 company including Colin A. Doyle and Robert Winslow
"The Cavan Blazers" emphasizes the significance of and for religious tolerance, but it often comes at a costly price.
Background: Playwright Robert Winslow’s ‘The Cavan Blazers’ is in its seventh remount at 4th Line Theatre. It was the flagship production of the theatre company back in 1992 and again re-staged in 1993, 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2011.
This is the first time I’ve seen the production.
4th Line Theatre’s mandate promotes Canadian cultural heritage through regional and environmentally staged dramas, and the company is to be commended for it. This production of ‘The Cavan Blazers’ features more than 50 actors, including both local performers and those belonging to the Equity Union. Additionally, an advisory to dress appropriately for the elements. A play does not stop at the Winslow Farm if there is a brief rainstorm, so pack appropriate gear just in case. Opening night was halted briefly for a heavier rain twice in the second act. Lightning ultimately forced the show's postponement for safety reasons.
I returned the next night. There was another brief rainfall, but it cleared.
The Play: Set in 1854, ‘The Cavan Blazers’ dramatizes the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic Irish settlers in Cavan Township outside of Peterborough. Justice of the Peace Patrick Maguire (JD ‘Jack’ Nicholsen) wants to establish a Catholic parish in the township. Dane Swain (Colin A. Doyle) leads the vigilante group ‘The Blazers’ who do whatever they can to stop Catholicism's ‘threatening influence’ in the township.
Commentary: As a practicing Catholic, I wondered how the story would unfold. After watching Winslow’s play, I couldn’t help but make a connection to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Both works contain hurtful language towards Catholics and members of the BIPOC community, respectively. Yet, Miss Lee’s book has been removed from some school districts’ curricula.
Should practicing Catholics be upset about treatment towards them in Winslow’s play?
Yes, because it is horrible to hear and witness on stage.
Should Catholics avoid Winslow’s play as some school districts have recommended for Miss Lee’s book?
Approaching the ‘Cavan Blazers’ requires an open mind. The same applies to reading "Mockingbird." These were horrible times in our collective history, but they cannot be erased or ignored. They must be confronted head-on.
The Winslow Farm setting works well for this ‘Blazers’ remount. Although unintentional, the opening night impending thunderstorm and dark sky were a perfect example of the literary term ‘pathetic fallacy’ we learned in school, where the outside weather reflects the characters' internal feelings. The sound of periodic rolling thunder increased the dramatic intensity at various moments. But this is not going to happen at every performance. On the second night, chirping birds at sunset also added to the mystique of the outdoor setting.
Productions I’ve seen at 4th Line always strive for realism and have been successful. For the most part, Korin Cormier’s costumes replicate 1854 nicely.
In the first act, Matt Gilbert (Father Phelan) enters wearing the sacred vestment of a priest after performing a wedding ceremony. He then proceeds to dance in it. I have taken courses in Roman Catholic church history. A priest would not wear the vestment outside of the celebration of the Mass and most certainly not dance in it either. This might be seen as disrespectful of what the vestment represents. I checked the program to see if a local parish priest was mentioned, and a thank you was extended to one. Did this thank you extend for the loan of the vestment, for clarification regarding the wearing of the robe, or both?
The selection of pre-show and post-show music duly reflects the conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants. A choice made in the set design puzzled me. There is a picture of Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I had to take a few moments to look up the significance of this individual to Ireland. I’ve included date of birth and death. Since ‘Cavan Blazers’ takes place in 1854, I couldn’t understand why Sands’ picture is there, and I missed the connection.
Maintaining accent consistency always remains a challenge for actors—a nod of appreciation to Dialect Coach Melee Hutton for the work involved. For the most part, the actors are successful; however, there are some audibility issues. I can’t hear clearly what is said when there is overlapping dialogue. The same goes when groups of characters may be angry. I couldn’t hear the conversation. It’s admirable that the actors strive for believability—make sure you can always be heard in future performances. Project, but don’t holler.
4th Line Artistic Director Kim Blackwell directs the production with a sure hand. The 50-actor cast energizes Robert Winslow’s intense script of brewing troubles between the Catholics and the Protestants.
J. D. Nicholsen remains a stubborn but determined Patrick Maguire throughout to ensure a Catholic presence in Cavan. Solid work from Katherine Cullen as Patrick’s wife, Ann, who is a Protestant and also dutifully stands by her husband even with the harassment and taunting she and her family receive from the Blazers. Ann can only take so much as anyone can. A poignantly touching scene between the two in the second act is heightened when the youngest daughter waves at her father.
Colin A. Doyle’s Dane Swain is a passionate and fiery Protestant leader of the Blazers who makes it his duty to ensure no Catholic influence permeates Cavan. Like Nicholsen, Doyle also brings some very human character moments to the surface. In Act One, Swain allows Father Phelan to continue his journey into town after a taxing encounter with the Blazers and, in Act 2, when he confronts Patrick’s wife, Ann, in the tavern.
Playwright Winslow assumes the role of Justice of the Peace, John Knowlson. In a drunken conversation he shares with Maguire in the second act, Winslow’s monologue of the reasons why he assists in helping to build the Catholic settlement is powerfully delivered. Complete silence in the audience around me when we learn about Knowlson’s backstory. Nicely done.
Why audiences need to see ‘The Cavan Blazers’: It is a timely play which speaks to the 21st-century audience. There are countries still pitted against each other. Russia and Ukraine are only one example.
The 2023 remount is handled with the utmost care not to hide the truth. No one emerges victorious as fault lies on both sides, and everyone involved dearly pays the cost.
This production can lead to meaningful discussions about tolerance's true meaning and understanding.
Running Time: approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission. Production begins at 6 pm.
‘The Cavan Blazers’ runs until August 26 at 4th Line Theatre on the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line in Millbrook.
For tickets, visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca or call the Box Office at (705) 932-4445.