Until March 29, the Citadel’s MacLab Theatre is welcoming audiences to Johannah Donnelly’s home. Or rather, the burnt ruins of it after she and most of her family was massacred 135 years ago by a gang of vigilantes in Ontario’s Biddulph township. Even though the massacres took place in a small pioneer community where everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings, the crime remains unsolved even today.
As audiences have come to expect from Catalyst Theatre, Vigilante is a production that blows you away with its music, set, script, and a team of actors and musicians that bring this story that is both resonant and haunting. Inspired by the story of the Donnelly family (who you may know as the Black Donnellys), Catalyst Theatre takes the bones of the family’s story – that they came to Canada from Ireland in search of a better life, got re-involved up in a feud from their homeland, and eventually there was a massacre in their family home – and weaves it into a show that explores the ideas of opportunity, family before all else, justice and storytelling.
Like all great shows, Vigilante makes you question who you are as a person. In Canada we’re spoon fed the idea that this is the land of opportunity. But the Donnellys’ story makes you think – who was this the land of opportunity for? Is there really any such thing as starting over?
In the Donnellys we find a family at a time when a ticket to Canada was just starting to be sold as an opportunity to have freedom and to start a new life. Yet this family was still dragged back into the same mess they left Ireland to escape in the first place. And it’s not a story unique to the Donnellys or even to the 1800s. It’s a story that’s happening again and again in today’s communities of newcomers to Canada. To watch the arc of Johannah and her husband James rise from desperation to hope and fall into suspicion and resignation is heartbreaking, but it’s a story that has been repeated over and over in this country and leaves you questioning what we as a society are doing to make sure that Canada really is the land of opportunity for all, not just sold as one.
To survive in Canada, which turns out to be just as hostile as the land they left behind, the Donnellys band together as a family. As the family matriarch Johannah says many times throughout the show, family always comes first. The way Jonathan Christenson has written the show, it’s told from the perspective of six sons who – like the good Irish Catholic boys they are – are unabashed admirers of their “beautiful ma”. In their eyes, she can do no wrong. According to them, the way she steered the family was indisputably right, and all those townsfolk who were constantly persecuting the Donnellys for everything that went wrong in their community are the real criminals of the story. When someone attacks her family, Johannah’s advice to her boys is not to go to the authorities – it’s to bide your time and take your revenge when the fucking law isn’t looking. It’s this sense of deep-rooted family loyalty, distrust of formal justice processes, and reliance on frontier justice which drives the story of Vigilante and ultimately results in the family’s demise.
The narrators of Vigilante are the brood of Donnelly boys, led by eldest son Will (Carson Nattrass) who are here to tell us their version of events. Between decayed costumes (Narda McCarroll), red-outlined eyes (makeup by Michael Devanney), and Laura Krewski’s choreography that is best described as lumberjack zombie – the Donnelly boys are undoubtedly coming to us from beyond the grave, while their parents Johanna (Jan Alexandra Smith) and James (David Leyshon) are fiercely alive in the memories they show us. The story the boys tell us makes it hard to believe the family was massacred. If you’re familiar with the story of the Donnellys, Vigilante is, above all, a reminder that there is no such thing as a “true story” – perspective is everything. This is not the story you’ll find in the history books and likely not in the tourism industry that has sprung up in Lucan based around the Donnellys. It’s a story of love, tenderness, pride, and perseverance in spite of everyone around you being out to get you.
The energy of all of the actors was really fun to watch – especially the Donnelly children played by Carson Nattrass, Scott Walters, Kris Joseph, Eric Morin, Lucas Meeuse, and Benjamin Wardle. The chemistry between the six actors playing the Donnelly children was obvious during both the musical numbers, where they present a formidable wall against the outside world and as they roughhoused with each other on-stage during the dialogue-based moments. As the main narrator and eldest child, Carson Nattrass keeps his squabbling brothers on track and is the one with the most burning desire to ensure the Donnelly’s side of the story is heard. The actors playing the sons also play the ancillary characters surrounding the Donnelly’s story, particularly Kris Joseph and Scott Walters who spend a considerable amount of time playing the characters who pose the largest threat to the Donnelly family: Kris as a malevolent sprite-like Whiteboy who chases the family from Ireland to Canada and Scott as the thuggish landowner who steals the Donnelly’s land. I also really enjoyed watching Benjamin Wardle as the youngest Donnelly boy, with his sensitive youthful mannerisms mirroring those of David Leyshon who played the father, James Donnelly.
As the matriarch Johannah, Jan Alexandra Smith gives an upstanding performance. Taking the strong, defiant character Jonathan Christenson has written, Jan is the most aggressive character of the show one moment and the source of the most tender moments the next. Jan’s versatility in acting, nevermind her great vocals, make her character enthralling to be in the presence of.
You may or may not want to read the next part of my review in advance of seeing the show depending on how much you like to know about the story behind a play before seeing it. If you’re interested in the rest of the review, I’ve put it after the Citadel’s promotional video below.
The Donnellys of Vigilante are completely imaginary – something writer/director/composer/lyricist Jonathan Christenson makes no attempt to hide, with his director’s notes in the playbill starting off by saying the play is inspired by the Donnellys. But from a combination of everything I read in advance of the play, I walked into the show expecting Vigilante to have a stronger tie to the real Donnellys than it did.
Being a little familiar with the story of the Donnelly family based on a nonfiction book I read about them several years ago and internet research in advance of the play, it’s clear that Vigilante is not the story of the Donnellys. As I said at the beginning of this review, it’s inspired by the bones of their story – people who came to Canada from Ireland in search of a better life, got re-involved up in a feud from their homeland, and eventually there was a massacre in their family home. But the Donnellys of Vigilante don’t share the same birth dates and orders or times and methods of death as the original Donnelly family. In the story of the real Donnellys, it was James, Johannah, John, and Thomas Donnelly (as well as a niece, Bridget) who died in the massacre, while in Vigilante Johanna, Will, Tommy, Daniel, Robert, Johnny and Michael do. As I watched James Donnelly die well in advance of the massacre, the inaccuracies in occurrences that can be verified by historical documents bothered me and kept distracting me throughout the show. Curious, after the show I went back to the internet to do more Googling and wasn’t able to find a Donnelly son named Daniel. To be honest, these discrepancies sort of ruined the memory of the show for me as I couldn’t find a reason that made sense for why things like the names and birth orders of the victims would have been changed (although I understand pairing down the 11 person Donnelly clan from a budget perspective).
I know that Vigilante is about storytelling and the idea that there’s no such thing as a true story, but based on how the stories the Donnellys tell in Vigilante compare to what’s available in the public sphere, I think the creator’s intent for Vigilante was to make the audience think about he said/she said stories, not whether we can take birth and death certificates as the truth. A good show should inspire you to seek out more about what it is presenting to you, but the results of my further research just left me feeling deceived and that overshadowed the other messages in the play.