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The Shore Field

Review by Sean McQuaid

The Watermark Theatre rounds out its 2013 summer season with the world premiere of a very new play (The Shore Field, written and directed by Watermark artistic director Duncan McIntosh), based on the story and characters of a very old play (The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s 1904 classic about social change in Russia).

McIntosh shifts the tale from 1904 Russia to 1973 PEI just outside North Rustico, where celebrated actress Alfie Rainey (Gracie Finley) has returned to her family home just as it faces foreclosure. The Rainey family’s former farmhand Larry Pineau (Jody Racicot), now a prosperous businessman, advises them to sell their lovely shore field to cottage builders and use the proceeds to save the rest of the farm, but the hapless Rainey clan and their hangers-on all seem unwilling or unable to do much of anything about their situation.

The chief casting curiosity here is Watermark board member Finley, a long-retired Island actress who made her mark at age 16 as one of the most popular holders of the title role in Anne of Green Gables – the Musical (1968-1974 & 1984-1985).

Casting a beloved older PEI actress, long absent from the stage, as a beloved older PEI actress long absent from her home (and from reality for that matter) gives the part an added layer of resonance akin to faded movie star Gloria Swanson’s iconic role as faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Like Swanson, Finley is ready for her close-up. Fragile and haunted but still regal, like some latter-day female King Lear, she brings enough likeability to the part to make the fatally flawed Alfie sympathetic as well as pathetic.

Other standouts include a warmly charming Rebecca Parent as Alfie’s daughter Anna; an entertainingly cantankerous and poignantly sad Laurie Campbell (superb star of Watermark’s excellent Alice in Wonderland) as the Raineys’ longtime housekeeper and Larry’s long-suffering love interest Donna Gallant; and Racicot, who just about steals the whole darn show as Larry, the play’s most fascinating and entertaining character.

Smart and stupid, confident and insecure, wise and foolish, Larry is a constant bundle of contradictions and Racicot brings them all to life with a magnetically watchable nervous energy and folksy authenticity.

This Island-ized take on Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard captures much the same uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy as the original, and the script does a fine job of streamlining the story’s plot and characters; McIntosh’s knack for stripping classics down to their essentials in his adaptations serves him well here.

The script and the production also do a good job of conveying the flavor of the 70s in general and that era’s PEI in particular, though certain aspects of the period might not be entirely clear to younger viewers as presented here.

It may be an unfair observation, but Shore Field feels a bit flat by comparison to Watermark’s other 2013 shows (Alice and Rondelay) – more talky, more static, less technically inventive and colourful – though that’s not inappropriate for the play’s down-to-earth locale and subject matter.

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