'Fall on Your Knees' produced by National Arts Centre, Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage, Neptune Theatre and Grand Theatre
Adapted by Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch from the novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Fall On Your Knees’ (The Family Tree) and (The Diary) are sweeping epic tales of human emotions caught in a vortex of an ever-evolving world. The themes of love, loss, and the changing understanding of community lead to redemption; however, the cost of this redemption when Lily Piper’s ultimate secret is revealed in the end became a challenge in understanding it first and then trying to accept what has occurred.
Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s best-seller with a rather lengthy and intensive six-hour adaptation for the stage by Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch in two parts, ‘Fall On Your Knees’ becomes that modern Canadian epic story spanning a near lifetime of human emotions of love, loss, life, truth and redemption.
The setting is Cape Breton in the early 1900s. James Piper (Tim Campbell) who works as a piano tuner meets, is entranced by, and then marries 13-year-old Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca) much to the chagrin of her wealthy and traditional Lebanese parents (Antoine Yared and Maryem Tollar). James and Materia’s first-born daughter Kathleen (Samantha Hill) puts great strain on their relationship. Materia does not immediately take to being a mother on account of her young age while James develops a rather unusual, smothering relationship with his child which wreaks eventual havoc many years later. James sends Leo Taylor (Tony Ofori) to drive the older Kathleen to New York to study singing so she can perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Kathleen’s vocal teacher Maestro (Antoine Yared) and the accompanist Rose Lacroix (Amaka Umeh) also play major influential roles in the life of the eldest Piper daughter.
A kind neighbour to the Pipers, Mrs. Luvovitz (Diane Flacks) eventually helps Materia to sew and cook. Later we meet Mrs. Luvovitz’s son Ralph (Drew Moore) who influences another of the Piper daughters.
Two other children eventually follow in James’s and Materia’s family – Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright) and Frances (Deborah Hay). As Kathleen, Mercedes and Frances grow older, they try to understand the relationship between their domineering father and reluctantly silent mother over many years. Many individuals come and go and remain part of their lives in this process: Lily (Eva Foote), Kathleen’s daughter, Anthony (Dakota Jamal Wellman) and Adelaide Taylor/Sweet Jessie Hogan (Janelle Cooper).
Yes, six hours is a lot to ask of audiences to sit through a play. Parts One and Two do provide a complete picture, but I still have unanswered questions.
For one, I was asked the other day if it’s possible to see one of the stories and not the other.
Just like a tree with sturdy roots, Part One has a great deal of layering underneath to set firmly in place the lives of all these characters. Was that accomplished? Yes, it was and assuredly I will add too. Part Two (the diary Kathleen keeps journalling her New York life and experiences) now allowed for the budding and blossoming (either positive or not) of the sown seeds to set this family tree firmly in place. Camellia Koo has created a striking symbolic image of a family tree onstage at the end of ‘The Diary’.
The other question - Since the Pipers are Roman Catholic (and whether a Christian faith perspective should play an important part in understanding what occurred with Lily) would this type of behaviour regarding Lily have truly been covered up and then looked upon as forgivable and redeemable in secluded rural 1900? Is this behaviour also occurring in secluded rural communities today? Questions upon questions and yes that’s a good thing if theatre allows us to ask and search for answers. I’m not saying the circumstances surrounding Lily’s birth were right by any means so please don’t misunderstand what I’m implying here.
You’ll notice I’m not stating what the circumstances are regarding Lily’s birth. Go to the theatre and see for yourselves.
My answer as a theatre lover and supporter regarding seeing Parts One and Two?
With a top-notch and eclectic cast like this that delivers an array of emotionally charged performances, see them both. An epic treatment of a story deserves our full attention.
So many solid choices were made from Koo’s fascinating set design. From my seat, it looked as if there were long pieces of brown material angled different ways high over the stage which sometimes moved if there was a slight breeze. Early on it reminded me of piano keys since James Piper is a tuner, and music plays an important influence in the story. Four musicians sat upstage off left which worked well as the music beautifully and soundly emanated from there. Judith Bowden’s costume designs strikingly represent the early 20th-century era right to the 1960s.
Cast members swiftly glide off and on many, many props and set pieces with the greatest control of ease. This keeps the pace of this six-hour story clipping along. It never felt rushed.
The New York speakeasy bar scenes are richly enhanced by Bowden’s costume designs again, Leigh Ann Vardy’s harsh, gritty lighting, Natasha Powell’s sultry choreography and Sean Mayes’ extraordinary jazz age music orchestration and arrangements. Janelle Cooper is dazzling in her work as Sweet Jessie Hogan, and I would surely pay to go hear her sing anytime and anywhere.
The cast remains intently focused throughout thanks to Alisa Palmer’s minute attention to detail with heightened sensitivity in wanting to dig deeper into understanding what makes these people behave with incredible truth in word and action.
As patriarch James, Tim Campbell remains a towering and imposing force of brute and passionate strength. Underneath though is the tortured soul of a man and his actions. Those moments where Campbell openly weeps are truly heartbreaking. Cara Rebecca undergoes a believable arc of character change from the young naïve 13-year-old girl Materia unaware of the responsibilities of married life and raising a young child to someone who will stand her ground in dealing with her husband and the eventual changes that come their way.
Samantha Hill, Jenny L. Wright, and Deborah Hay are exceptional in their performances as Kathleen, Mercedes, and Frances. They have created distinct real-life women who carry tremendous heartache and burden in their own lives. Hill’s moments as a young impressionable Kathleen with her father are a tad uncomfortable and questionable, but they leave an indelible impression. Wright and Hay’s work as the dutiful Mercedes and simpleton Frances is perfect comic fodder initially to help ease the tension that has already been created through the plot.
As their individual stories develop, one cannot help but feel extreme sadness for Mercedes and Frances whose lives have been torn asunder by the circumstances in which they currently find themselves. The scene where Drew Moore as Ralph Luvovitz visits Mercedes when he returns home from McGill University is so sad, especially in watching how Wright says nothing but conveys so much in her facial features and body stance on stage.
Although Deborah Hay’s work is comic gold and can make us laugh in the face of trouble, her Frances is still on the edge of despair. This is strongly evident when in a tearful moment reaches out to Leo ‘Ginger’ Taylor, the man who drove Kathleen to New York. As Leo, Tony Ofori’s initial concern in dealing with Frances is palatably evident, but he succumbs to her tearful advances, the smile Hay reveals to the audience is one of glee and one to be feared. Magical indeed to watch these two in action.
Eva Foote’s initially shy and sweet Lily becomes a believable full-bodied individual who learns of who she is, her strength to move forward and to realize family runs through our veins no matter the circumstances.
Supporting characters must also be mentioned as they add to the plausibility of the story’s epic nature. Diane Flacks’ is a matronly Giles MacVicar and Mrs. Luvovitz. Antonine Yared is a terrific reminder of the tough-as-nails ‘Maestro’ who will catapult a talent to heights unknown but must work for it in the process. Amaka Umeh’s Rose Lacroix beautifully reinforces the questionable behaviour of individuals in the Roaring Twenties which is not looked at in the same vein today. I was left with a question at the end of the play. Did James actually know the truth about Rose Lacroix and the relationship with Kathleen or not?
Final Comments: ‘Fall On Your Knees’ maintains a consistent intensity that did leave me feeling tired after sitting for six hours over two days.
But it’s what I call a ‘good tired’ as the script has the potential to become a classic of the Canadian theatre canon.
This production is on the road once it leaves the Bluma Appel. It then travels to Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and concludes at London Ontario’s Grand Theatre.
Running Time: Part 1 Family Tree runs 3 hours with one intermission.
Part 2 The Diary runs 3 hours with two intermissions.
‘Fall On Your Knees’ runs until February 4 at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St. East. For tickets, call the Box Office at (416) 368-3110 or visit canadianstage.com
A NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE, VITA BREVIS ARTS, CANADIAN STAGE, NEPTUNE THEATRE AND GRAND THEATRE PRODUCTION
FALL ON YOUR KNEES based on the novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Adaptors for the Stage: Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch
Director: Alisa Palmer
Music Supervision, Orchestration and Arrangements: Sean Mayes
Choreographer: Natasha Powell
Set Designer: Camellia Koo
Costume Designer: Judith Bowden
Sound Designer: Brian Kenny
Stage Manager: Michael Hart
Musicians: Douglas Price, Anna Atkinson, Spencer Murray, Maryem Tollar
Cast: Tim Campbell, Janelle Cooper, Diane Flacks, Eva Foote, Deborah Hay, Samantha Hill, Drew Moore, Tony Ofori, Cara Rebecca, Maryem Tollar, Amaka Umeh, Dakota Jamal Wellman, Jenny L. Wright, Antoine Yared, Kira Chisolm, Naomi Ngebulana