Theatre review: Vigilante cast keeps powerful Donnellys saga all in the family

The cast of Vigilante: Kris Joseph, Scott Walters, Jan Alexandra Smith, David Leyshon. Photo: DBPhotographics

They may sing tunefully and love their ma like crazy, but you wouldn’t want to mess with the Donnelly boys. They’re a potentially dangerous crew with a vigorous sense of survival, and in southern Ontario’s Biddulph Township circa the mid-19th century, that means one for all and all for one.

That spirit of family – especially a family under siege through no real fault of its own – is one of many themes raging like a river of blood through Vigilante, the extraordinarily powerful rock-opera by Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre now playing the NAC. Catalyst Theatre’s Jonathan Christenson wrote, composed and directed Vigilante, a dark, swaggering and occasionally vulnerable show that spirits the Black Donnellys and their fight for survival to the level of the epic without once losing sight of the fact that these are real people in a real world.

Taking theatrical licence with some of the facts, Christenson lends a mythic sweep to his version of the real-life Donnellys story by opening it in Ireland where the ever-optimistic James Donnelly (David Leyshon) locks eyes with danger by courting and winning the hand of the alluringly tough-shelled Johannah Magee (Jan Alexandra Smith), whose family is on the opposite side of James’ in one of those interminable secret Catholic society feuds that once scarred Ireland. Seeking a better life, the two immigrate to southern Ontario, where they commence farming and produce a crop of half a dozen fractious lads who are as hard-working as their parents. But there’s no escaping the tentacles of those old feuds. Soon the Donnellys and their prosperous farm, surrounded by jealous neighbours who also came from the old sod, are entangled in a escalating vortex of threats, fights, arson and, ultimately, the 1880 vigilante massacre of the family that remains unsolved to this day.

Christenson casts his tale as a kind of ghost story, with the Donnellys rising from the grave still hungry for vengeance and spitting out their saga of betrayal, injustice (I never realized how many different ways there are to mock “the effen law” until I saw this show) and family solidarity. The heart of that family is Johannah, played with hypnotic strength and intelligence by Smith. She’s “our warrior,” declares one of her sons, and she proves it time and again, erupting like a flash fire in the face of anyone who opposes her. “You don’t get to give up,” she rages to her husband, a man she loves deeply, at one point. Her motto, “For a Donnelly, family always comes first,” hangs like a sampler over everything she does.

Carrying herself tall and straight, her chin jutting aggressively, Johannah also occasionally – but just occasionally – softens, her body releasing its habitual tension to hope and love. But at heart, she doesn’t believe people change, and she’s proven right as the darkness that followed her from her native country engulfs her, her family and their farm.

Christenson has made Will, the eldest son, the narrator of the story. Played with a knowing air by the excellent Carson Nattrass, he steps in and out of his role as one of the sons to guide us through the shifting storyline. The rest of the ensemble is equally compelling, their individual characters boldly drawn and their collective force one to be reckoned with. Eric Morin, who plays Robert Donnelly, delivers a stunning solo song that spotlights not just his own vocal endowments but the range of Christenson’s skill as a composer and lyricist.

A five-piece, on-stage band delivers the Celtic-tinged rock that, like the songs and the stomping dances, are integral to the show. Here as elsewhere – the story of boy-meets-girl, a character breaking into song rather than spoken word – Christenson plays with conventions of musical theatre to new and startling effect.

Laura Krewski is the inventive choreographer, Beth Kates created the shadow-and-light themed lighting design that works so well with Narda McCarroll’s costumes, and Christenson collaborated with James Robert Boudreau on the Spartan, wood-timbered set that suggests everything from a barn to the hold of the ship that transported young James and Johannah to their new home.

They might have been better off never leaving the old one.

Vigilante is a Catalyst Theatre (Edmonton) Production. It was reviewed Friday. In the NAC Theatre until April 15. 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.