'Wishful Seeing' by Maja Ardal based on the novel of the same name by Janet Kellough

World Premiere by 4th Line Theatre presented at the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, Ontario

Wayne Eardley, Brookside Studio

Joe Szekeres

There’s a lot going on in this stage adaptation of ‘Wishful Seeing’ so pay close attention.

(Note: I have not read Janet Kellough’s novel of the same name so I’m unable to make any comparisons to the book. Kellough attended the opening night audience. Writer Maja Ardal was absent as she appears in Canadian Stage’s production of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ in Toronto’s High Park.)

On this very warm summer opening night evening world premiere, 4th Line Theatre took me back me back to pre-Confederation Canada.

The time is 1853. Robert Winslow ably portrays saddlebag and troubled Methodist preacher Thaddeus Lewis who struggles in his relationship with God and his faith because of the death of his wife, Betsy, and their daughter. We also learn Lewis is an amateur detective who has helped to solve criminal cases in Toronto prior to his arrival to living and preaching in Cobourg. 4th Line’s website describes Wishful Seeing as: “a historical thriller with a colourful cast of characters.” That it is, but there’s more in this production which deserves attention and another look.

For one, although some of these small-town folk may be colourful in their disposition, several are nosy and close-minded in their treatment of outsiders. Both Thaddeus and his granddaughter experience this behaviour, unfortunately. When the preacher stumbles upon a murder mystery on the shores of Rice Lake, the rumours start flying quickly around town. When resident Ellen Howell (solid work by Kait Dueck) is imprisoned for this murder, Lewis sets out to discover the truth of what happened so she can be freed.

Lewis hires charming lawyer Townsend Ashby (Conor Ling) to help defend Ellen. Martha Renwell (Kate Bemrose), who has come to tend the house for Lewis, her grandfather, becomes smitten with Ashby and the feeling is reciprocated. On top of that, Lewis’s assistant James Small (Tavaree Daniel-Simms) is smitten with Martha. Lewis has also uncovered fraudulent activity and scheme regarding the construction of a railway line from Cobourg to Peterborough which included the construction of a trestle bridge south to north over Rice Lake. A very cool special effect occurs in the second act regarding this trestle bridge.

Visually ‘Wishful Seeing’ did not disappoint in the slightest. Michael Nott’s primo set design and Emma Gray’s realistic-looking props never appear cramped. Korin Cormier’s costume designs splendidly reflect the mid-nineteenth-century style with their various shapes, textures, and colours. Justin Hiscox’s musical direction and original compositions finely underscore scene changes without overpowering. From my seat, there were moments far stage left where I couldn’t hear the lyrics to a couple of the songs. Hopefully, both Sound Designer Esther Vincent and Hiscox can rectify this sound issue quibble for future performances.

Several characters effectively support Winslow’s work onstage. JD Nicholsen is a surly, gruff, and untrustworthy George Howell. Daughter Caroline, played by Rylee Dixon, remains sweetly demure amid the trouble that befalls her family. Kate Bemrose remains steadfast in her performance as Lewis’s granddaughter, Martha Renwell. She is a young woman who has no fear to leave the home her father has provided for her after her mother died to be of assistance to her grandfather. As Townsend Ashby, Conor Ling believably maintains that sense of something just does not seem right about this young, cocky lawyer.

Supporting characters provided elements of humour throughout the production. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Madison Sheward’s delightfully stylized choreography in having the townspeople move set pieces in the scene changes. Mark Hiscox provided a great deal of laughter as Baptist minister Phineas Brown in his conversation with Thaddeus over the benefits of the baptism sprinkling versus full immersion in water. As Thaddeus’s yes-man pastoral assistant James Small, Tavaree Daniel-Simms’s initial boyishly young attraction to Martha Renwell is amusing while a tad sad because he realizes his awkwardness will not win her hand. The gossipy town ‘hens’ in Pott’s General Store made me smile because they remained firmly in the moment both in their dialogue delivery and in their listening to what others were saying.

But I’m also puzzled with ‘Wishful Seeing’.

Yes, this cast has worked extremely hard to present an interesting story which reflects the local history with applause to Artistic Director (and director of ‘Wishful Seeing’) Kim Blackwell for continuing to showcase the richness of this area and its historical significance.

But is ‘Wishful Seeing’ a murder mystery or a send-up of life in small-town Ontario Pre-Confederation? I don’t know what to call Ardal’s play at this point as this delineation has not been made clear to me in this adaptation. The courtroom scenes are strong reminders this production is a murder mystery while the humourous moments of small-town, slice-of-life rural pre-Confederation Ontario are solid indicators we are to remember this about the production.

Perhaps it’s time to read the book for further information.

Final Comments: Is ‘Wishful Seeing’ just that? Worth seeing?

Yes, it is, as Kim Blackwell has staged an enjoyable story of panoramic scope of visual treats and good performances. The opening night standing ovation remains proof enough that live theatre is back safely in the hands of 4th Line Theatre.

Running time is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. The production began sharply at 6 pm. so thank you for starting on time.

‘Wishful Seeing’ runs to August 27 at 4th Line Theatre at the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook Ontario. For tickets call 705-932-4445, 1-800-814-0055 or visit 4thlinetheatre.on.ca for further information.

‘Wishful Seeing’ by Maja Ardal. Based on the novel of the same name by Janet Kellough.
Directed by Kim Blackwell
Musical Direction & Original Composition by Justin Hiscox
Costume Designer by Korin Cormier
Choreography by Madison Sheward
Sound Design by Esther Vincent
Stage Management by Jess Gordon

The Cast: Mohamed Abdullah, Nathan Avila, Kate Bemrose, Kaleigh E. Castell, Tavaree Daniel-Simms, Rylee Dixon, Kait Dueck, Naomi Duvall, Huseyin Halil, Justin Hiscox, Mark Hiscox, Conor Ling, Ian McGarrett, Megan Murphy, JD (Jack) Nicholsen, Julian Pawchuk, Ryan Tobin, Hilary Wear, Robert Winslow

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