'The Great Shadow' by Alex Poch-Goldin

Presented by 4th Line Theatre at the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, Ontario

Wayne Eardley, Brookside Studio

Joe Szekeres

4Th Line Theatre gives ardent theatregoers a heartfelt welcome back gift with ‘The Great Shadow’

After a two-year Covid absence, the opening night outdoor audience at Millbrook’s 4th Line Theatre longingly awaited a triumphant return to live entertainment presented on a beautiful summer evening at the Winslow Farm.

Great anticipation hovered in the air and, to add to the excitement, Artistic Director Kim Blackwell reminded us tonight was the 30th Anniversary of this terrific outdoor company with the world premiere of Alex Poch-Goldin’s ‘The Great Shadow’. There’s a double meaning behind the title which I’m not going to ruin here for future audiences. It’s uniquely appropriate once it becomes apparent, but you’ll have to pay close attention as there are a lot of characters to keep clear who’s who.

A lot was riding on this outdoor return to live theatre for me. What appealed to me initially about this story was the message from the playwright’s notes that ‘The Great Shadow’ “is a love story to the movies as much as a history on the birth of Canadian film.” Since my undergraduate years at Western, I’ve always been interested in learning more about our culture and what makes us who we are as Canadians whether it be through film, literature or our theatre.

The story is set in 1919 in Trenton Ontario, Toronto, Manhattan, and Hollywood. There are two different plot lines. We are introduced to producer George Brownridge (Colin A. Doyle) whose dream is to open a studio and embark on a quest to establish a Canadian film identity based in Trenton. The studio is built, and we get to see some rather hilarious bits filmed for ‘The Great Shadow’ shot in town with some major Hollywood silver screen celebrities of the day: Tyrone Power gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, studio mogul Adolph Zukor and a very youthful Clark Gable whose backstory, if it is true, I found rather interesting.

The other plot involves single mother Maddy Donegal (Julia Scaringi) and her two daughters Lena (Emma Meinhardt) and Sunny (Indigo Chesser). Maddy is the local seamstress in town who receives an offer to work on the costumes in the film. It also becomes a family affair as well where Lena and Sunny are involved in the shooting.

The crucial link between the two plots becomes clear as the story progresses but you’ll have to pay close attention once again because it will all make sense.

Was the selection of this world premiere at 4th Line a wise one to bring people back to 4th Line Theatre after two years?

Absolutely 99% yes.

There’s a reason why I didn’t say 100%. I will elucidate further shortly.

From the productions I’ve seen over the last few years, 4th Line pays meticulous attention to detail and Esther Vincent’s work in Set and Props and Sound Design do not disappoint in the least. For the most part, the sound design was solid except for a few moments in some of the choral singing which was a challenge to hear periodically. About five-seven minutes into the show be prepared for a sound cue that made me jump out of my seat along with others sitting around me. It's effective and works beautifully.
So many props reflective of the era graced the stage on opening night from the radio that families used to gather around to vintage cars and crank sewing machines. From my seat, I couldn’t tell if the old-fashioned cameras were the real thing or specifically constructed for the production. In any event, they looked marvelous.

Along the front of stage left almost centre, there is a miniature model of a train’s caboose car which would signify the primary mode of long transportation across the country at this time. A multi-layered set serves as different locales throughout the production. The top-level becomes at times a runway of settings from a local movie theatre to an entrance of a local speakeasy. A few steps downstage right become a double locale for a Hollywood bar and podium. A few steps from there stage right becomes an inn/town hall locale where officials debate the merits of building a studio in Toronto. Stage left resembles a dressing/fitting room with a turn-of-the-century sewing machine and a day bed. Various suitcases of different sizes are found behind the dressing/fitting room area.

Laura Delchiaro and her team’s work in building some remarkable costume designs effectively reflect the era of the early 1920s nicely. Ever since I’ve begun reviewing at 4th Line, I’ve always enjoyed hearing Justin Hiscox’s musical direction and original compositions on other productions. As always, no disenchantment on my part in hearing Hiscox’s original music compositions for this production.

What I have always admired about 4th Line is its casting of local actors and Equity-based artists in each of its summer productions. What a select opportunity to learn from each other.

Director Cynthia Ashperger’s careful vision of preserving small-town Canadiana fittingly evokes the busyness and growing fascination of film and its industry within Trenton and the mega-city life of Hollywood and Manhattan. Colin A. Doyle brings a sense of both decency and tenacity in his role as George Brownridge, producer of the film to be shot in Trenton. Doyle reminded me of the young Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey) from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. (I wonder if this was intentional on Poch-Goldin’s part?). Just as Stewart remained grounded in his film performance, Doyle maintains that firm solidness in his work which helps to set up some of the funnier moments of the story, especially where the Hollywood actress will not come out of her trailer to work until a new contract is negotiated for her.

As single mother Maddy Donegal, Julia Scaringi brings a bittersweet, genteel sense of decency and small-town modesty that seems to be lacking today in our fast-paced world. As Maddy’s daughters Lena and Sunny, Emma Meinhardt and Indigo Chesser capture that believable tinge of older sister/younger sister battles over trivial sibling familial matters.

There is some dynamite work in supporting roles that need to be acknowledged. As the rumoured and feuding gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, Shelley Simester and Sochi Fried amply provide that perfect amount of catty bitchiness with one-line zingers arrowed at each other’s pride. M. John Kennedy is a suavely debonair Tyrone Power. As director of the film ‘The Great Shadow’ Mark Hiscox is a commanding Harley Knoles.

Salvatore Scozzari is favourably overbearing as Hungarian-American producer Adolph Zukor (who was one of the founders of Paramount Pictures). Robert Morrison amusingly reveals true comedic promise in his roles as the young Clark Gable/waiter who becomes caught up in Louella Parson’s vision of what she has planned for his future in Act 1. Then, Morrison’s work as Trenton locale Wilbur at the top of Act Two delightfully plays with the heads of two high and mighty assumptive Americans who have come to Trenton on a Sunday looking to spot movie stars filming.

A slight quibble (and remember it’s only slight) rests in the historical context of the script. There is a historical reference made to Vladimir Illyitch Lenin which reflects the social unrest from the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 felt across Canada, including Trenton. Poch-Goldin appropriately establishes this historical connection and it’s done quite well at the top of Act One along with another moment in Act One.

However, the last two moments where the plot links to the Russian Bolshevik leader could be cut as these moments do not really add anything to the plot but slow it down a tad.

Only just a slight quibble.

Final Comments: Poch-Goldin made a comment in his Playwright’s Note that caught my attention:

“Even one hundred years from the time of this play, we still struggle against the great American behemoth to create and distribute Canadian culture, without enough money, support or acknowledgement, but we keep plugging away. Like this extraordinary theatre.”

This extraordinary 4th Line Theatre has given ardent playgoers a heartfelt welcome back gift against the odds of the American powerhouse with ‘The Great Shadow’ Its story of comic humour and human tender poignancy resonated with me on the drive home.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

The production runs to July 23 at The Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, Ontario. For tickets, call 1-800-814-0055 or 705-932-4445 or visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.

THE GREAT SHADOW by Alex Poch-Goldin
Directed by Cynthia Ashperger
Musical Direction by Justin Hiscox
Costume Design by Laura Delchiaro
Set Design by Esther Vincent
Fight Direction by Edward Belanger
Choreography by Bill Coleman

Actors: Freya Adams, Jalen Brink, Indigo Chesser, Peter Dolinski, Colin A. Doyle, Michael Field, Thomas Fournier, Sochi Fried, Matt Gilbert, Justin Hiscox, Mark Hiscox, M. John Kennedy, Caolimhe MacQuarrie, Deirbhile MacQuarrie, Riordan MacQuarrie, Saoirse MacQuarrie, Siobhan MacQuarrie, Sarah McNeilly, Emma Meinhardt, Robert Morrison, Kelsey Powell, Julia Scaringi, Salvatore Scozzari, Madison Sherward, Shelley Simester

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