Review: Tempting Providence by Robert Chafe

Biographical plays bring their own challenges, as I well know, having written one (A Song After Living, 1997), which caused its own murmurs in the theatrical circuit. Chafe’s play uses four actors to play a large group of characters, as often has to be done, with some or most cast members doubling.

The setting is ingenious, depicted by a monochromatic collection of a table and four chairs and, most importantly, a tablecloth-sized piece of neutral whitish fabric which ingeniously doubles as a baby, a shawl, bread dough, and becomes part of a boat, a rocking crib, a gown and on and on.

Costumes are uniformly unbleached whitish fabric, the same organic flour-like  hue as the aforementioned cloth.

The play operates on several levels for the audience: as effectively choreographed symbolic movement, as visual gag—particularly when Myra goes on a house call to a patient who is lying down—as representational setting—the sleigh, the crib, the rocking hair, the party, the waiting room—as time- and geography-spanning narrative device. All in all, it demands we suspend disbelief, and it succeeds.

Deirdre Gillard-Rowlings (Myra or “Nurse”) like most of the cast, appears to have shepherded her character since the 2002 premiere of this world-touring play. She seems really comfortable in the skin of this character, even though the depiction is couched in this extremely formulaic presentation. I have always felt that productions that demand the audience use its imagination have an advantage when it comes to generating emotion. That is because, with the very act of generating scenes as the result of symbolic stimuli, the audience’s imagination becomes a nearby field, ready for sowing and reaping. It was interesting to me that Gillard-Rowling’s accent was more mid-Atlantic than British or Canadian, yet I had no difficulty accepting her as a Brit. In contrast to the heavy Newfoundlander accents of the rest of the cast (which stymied my cognition for a few moments at the beginning of the play), her accent was unobtrusive and absolutely correct for her character. That she could become intimate with her husband was a delightful and somewhat unexpected revelation. I was pleased with the level of mime used in this production, particularly when Myra was performing everyday activities like cleaning flour off her hands or performing surgery, or desperately trying to move past snow-mired sleigh. It is attribute to the craft of Gillard-Rowlings and the rest of the cast that all of these actions were perfectly plausible and natural.

Melanie Caines, who played a wide variety of women, had the different challenge of switching recognizably through some characters who reappeared and others who appeared only once. The script cleverly assisted by giving certain of the reappearing characters recognizable phrases to utter; yet, there was one phrase uttered by different women, which was recognizably uttered by different women. And that may be a subtle thing, but certainly not easy to depict, and Caines carried it off admirably. I was quite delighted by the first woman, who became a friend of Myra. It was this moment of confrontation and release that really drew me into the play; I began to realize I was going to like it. Caines gave her characters an edge: sometimes tragic, sometimes comic.

Darryl Hopkins was Angus and the play’s narrator. As such, he has to tread the fine line between representing the audience point of view and expressing an emotional point of view in the play. The character is written as sympathetic and inevitable; yet, playwright Chafe is wise enough to keep him from being omnipotent. After all, there is a biography going on here and it must take precedence. It is through the narrative character that Myra is given even more dimension of action and character. Even though Hopkins is the newest member of the cast, he wore the part like an old friend.

Robert Wyatt Thorne (Men) played a wide variety of characters, ranging in age and temperament, presenting both comedy and drama with conviction and effect. I was a little confused when his little boy met “Nurse” for the first time; yet, I am not sure whether it was the depiction or this script that created the problem. Aside from this little blip, his characters were engaging and believable.

Tempting Providence is a well-crafted play. The first act ends on the startling comic note. The second act, shorter than the first, builds on it to generate drama and emotion. I freely admit to tearing up when I heard of the eight men crossing the ice. That’s all I’ll say about that. It was powerful, beautifully written, and amazingly supplemented by Caines’ Doctor’s wife, who draws the emotion to a laugh. Beautifully done. Just one quibble: what’s with the title? It makes no sense, given the subject matter, which says nothing particularly about religion or religious questions. It seems to be an idea that the playwright thought was intriguing, became attached to, and as is often the case when people deal with the hallowed words of playwrights, no one questioned it. I am. I suggest Nurse as the title: it honours the subject and is a prominent theme in the play. (Caveat about “the hallowed words of playwrights”: community theatre actors and directors brazenly excepted.)

We need more plays about our Canadians so we can know even better who we are. Self-definition is one of the reasons we need theatre, painting, sculpture, music, poetry, prose. It is part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that defines and defends our greatness.

Tempting Providence

By Robert Chafe

A Theatre Newfoundland Labrador Production

Directed by Jillian Keiley
Stage Managed by Beth Bartle
Costumes Designed By barry buckle
lighting designed by walter j. snow
pre- and post-music by rufus guinchard
& Selections from Father of the Newfoundland Fiddle Vol. 1

Deidre Gillard-Rowlings
Darryl Hopkins
Melanie Caines
Robert Wyatt Thorne

At Great Canadian Theatre Company Ottawa Ontario Canada

January 6-25 2009
Running time 2 hours including intermission

Performance viewed January 15, 2009 8 pm

About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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One Response to Review: Tempting Providence by Robert Chafe

  1. Yea I love reading Robert Chafe especially the Tempting Providence is a story of courage and strength told with simple elegance. British-trained nurse & midwife Myra Grimsley arrived in Newfoundland from her native
    London, England in 1921 after hearing of the desperate need for her work in rural
    communities. She was one of the first group of outport nurses who became a legend for performing a variety of medical tasks, from delivering babies to setting bones to extracting teeth. All this she did in all kinds of weather while traveling by foot, horse,
    dogsled, boat along the 320-kilometer rugged Northern Peninsula. She was known
    throughout Newfoundland and Labrador as ”Florence Nightingale of the North.„
    Tempting Providence is a wonderful, heart-felt portrayal of Nurse Bennett who has been honored many times over by the Governments of Canada and Britain.

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