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So Much Theatre: The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum

By Andrew Snowdon on October 22, 2012

I’ve listened to my share of Cape Breton coal mining stories, having had an elementary school teacher whose father was a doctor in just such a settlement. Although I found the world laid out in The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum familiar, I also found it fresh and full of life.

The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum tells the story of the MacNeils, a Cape Breton coal mining family, from the viewpoint of Margaret MacNeil (Francine Deschepper). Margaret lives in a shack with her bereaved mother Catherine (Martha Irving), her surviving brother Ian (Jeff Schwager) and her invalid grandfather (David Francis).  She meets and falls in love with a Scottish veteran, Neil Currie (Gil Garratt), whose brash manner, fierce pride in his heritage, and love of playing the bagpipes rekindle a joy in life that they had forgotten. Ian fights for worker’s rights, Grandpa MacNeil fights to breathe, and Neil fights to give Margaret a better life—but their fortunes are ultimately tied to the mines.
It’s not necessary to know the geography of—or anything else about—Cape Breton to follow the play (although it might have been nice to have a little map in the program for those of us with a foggy sense of the Maritimes). Those with some knowledge of the places and events mentioned will find it rendered faithfully and with emotional sincerity. Wendy Lill has adapted Sheldon Currie’s novel in a way that preserves the story’s intimacy while effortlessly showcasing the Cape Breton cultural idiom. The play, an NAC co-production with Halifzx’s Neptune Theatre in celebration of its 50thanniversary, is also directed by its original interpreter, Mary Vingoe, who among other distinctions was the founding Artistic Director of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.  She and two of the cast members (David Francis and Martha Irving) also took part in the NAC’s The Ark on Fogo Island project last year, which probably contributed to the cast’s rapport as an ensemble.
Francis conquers the challenge of playing a character who is all but mute and immobile with a highly practised subtlety of expression that makes him as interesting as, and a perfect foil for, the talkative Catherine.  There is a difference between playing a stereotype and playing a role immediately recognizable as a Cape Bretoner, and both Irving’s portrayal of Catherine and Deschepper’s portrayal of Margaret fall well on the correct side of that line. Schwager and Garratt are each great on their own, but their dynamic together highlights the conflicts that drive the action. The performances are perfectly balanced, which is essential for a play where every character has many dimensions.
The set makes the utmost use of both horizontal and vertical space to represent a variety of locations, central to which is the MacNeils’ living quarters.  The lighting is simple, subtle and therefore effective.  There is also plenty of music in The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum, not as mere decoration, but as an integral part of the story and its imagery. Most of the music is performed live, onstage by Gil Garratt’s character. The NAC Theatre is quite a large space—until it is filled with the just-short-of-deafening wail of  Bagpipes, which are meant to be played in the open air. Although many (myself included) find it quite pleasant—and Garratt plays not only the pipes but also a tin whistle and a fiddle with natural ability—for those who can’t abide the pipes it might be a bit much.  Even then, it’s probably worth the potential discomfort.
The Canadian obsession with attempting to articulate a national identity is, if not exactly productive of a definite answer, at least the inspiration for a great deal of artistic and literary output. Some have tried to pin the birth of the nation down to military distinction, giving us Billy Bishop Goes to WarVimy, and Passchendaele.  There are undoubtedly nations that can and do trace their origins back to defining moments of military victory, such as the United States and Great Britain. As important as these events are to history, I think Canadian national identity—if such a nebulous concept even has meaning—is rather to be found in the Prairie homesteads, the traplines of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, the steel rails laid through the Rockies, the coal mines of Cape Breton, and, today, the Alberta oil sands. This is why plays like The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum (and Dying Hard, and Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show) deserve a central place on our national stage.
The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum has a dark twist, in an already dark story, worthy of Chuck Palahniuk (it is no wonder that Helena Bonham-Carter starred in the 1995 film adaptation of Currie’s novel, Margaret’s Museum).  This darkness is shot through with a piercing shaft of light: the indefatigable spirit of Cape Breton. This production is delightful, entertaining, and thoroughly satisfying—a great way for the NAC English Theatre to open its season.