Life is a Highway: Heading Up to Low is certainly worth the drive

At one point in Up to Low, two hunched actors holding wooden chairs become a looming piece of farm machinery in a darkened barn.

Minutes later, the two performers are pigeons and the chairs, their flapping wings as the birds, disturbed, flutter to the top of the barn.

It’s a lovely bit of staging by director Janet Irwin, who has adapted Brian Doyle’s coming-of-age novel of the same name about a trip deep into the Gatineau Hills. The scene is also one of many in which reality seems fluid and in which people, things and events morph into each other with ease, suggesting that life — multi-layered, continually transforming, deliciously chaotic — can be neither compartmentalized nor really controlled.

That truth about our existence – and the concomitant importance of love and forgiveness in the face of uncertainty and even cruelty – is slowly absorbed by young Tommy, who’s at the centre of Doyle’s story.

A 1950s inner-city kid with a core of sweetness and a growing openness to life, Tommy (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) travels from Ottawa to his grandparents’ farm in Low, Quebec, with his widowed father (Chris Ralph) and his father’s dipsomaniac, Wordsworth-quoting pal Frank (Attila Clemann), who’s driving a brand new Buick.

Half the fun is getting there. The trip entails obligatory stops, including a marvellous one at a busy general store where the eight-member cast, all excellent and many of whom play multiple roles in the show, portray bustling customers watched over by a sharp-eyed proprietor (Pierre Brault).

Like any self-respecting general store, this one sells anything you could ever want — rosaries, potatoes and shotgun shells. Like those lists of God’s creations that celebrate divine munificence in medieval passion plays, this scene and others, exquisitely choreographed by Irwin, teem with life so vital it threatens to rupture its own borders. 

There are also, naturally, stops to tank up on alcohol at the various watering holes on the way to Low. These are opportunities to flesh out Tommy’s back story a bit, meet yet more memorable locals, and build our expectations around Low’s near-mythical Mean Hughie, a lifelong foe of Tommy’s dad and who, word is, “has got the cancer” but seems “too mean to die.”

Hughie and his illness sound the dark notes in Doyle’s story. Dealing with that darkness – like a cancer, it will consume you if you let it – is as much a part of Tommy’s journey of discovery as is the benediction of the sunset (Martin Conboy’s lighting design is gorgeous throughout  the show) when he, his father and Frank arrive at the farm.

Life in Low is no less vibrant than it was on the road. There’s a profusion of activity and food and people, including Tommy’s germaphobic Aunt Dottie (Kristina Watt), who shows up from Ottawa and who likes her fresh berries dipped in a little Lysol before consumption.

Life in Low is heightened for Tommy by Baby Bridget (Megan Carty). She’s the green-eyed daughter of Mean Hughie and Poor Bridget (Doreen Taylor-Claxton), the latter a mother of many who seems to spend all her time baking and shooing away flies and children.

Tommy has a world-class crush on Baby Bridget, who, like everyone in the story, carries her own scars. Irwin has staged some evocative scenes between the two. They include a hushed moment when they watch a dragonfly shed its skin as Ian Tamblyn, musical director for the on-stage trio, swipes his fingers across the strings of an autoharp, suggesting with that simple move the many rich transformations that are at the heart of this story.

Those transformations include the climactic one involving Baby Bridget, Mean Hughie (Paul Rainville) and Tommy in some richly imagined scenes including one with a coffin and a lake.

Irwin debuted Up to Low three years ago in an alley design in the small Arts Court Studio. It was a good and intimate production, but, in retrospect, it really needed a bigger space so that it could unfold its wings.

This NAC production gives it that space. Brian Smith’s set – including a backdrop of undulating vertical boards that suggests everything from a barn’s interior to the contours of the Gatineau Hills – offers both room and intimacy.

The partially thrust stage surrounded by a dozen or so cafe tables filled with theatre goers enhances the connection with the audience that risked being lost in the move to a bigger venue.

Up to Low closes out the current NAC English Theatre season. Exiting the season with young Tommy standing in the doorway of adulthood seems appropriate.     

Up to Low is a National Arts Centre production. It was reviewed Friday. In the Babs Asper Theatre until May 19. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.