Songs of the Island
Review by Erin Fagan
In the thick of another PEI summer season, it is deeply refreshing to get a little more acquainted with the woman behind the celebrity of Anne of Green Gables. New insight into the singular imagination of L.M. Montgomery can be found on a summer Sunday evening at the Confederation Centre's Studio Theatre, enabled by the talents of Marlane O'Brien, Hank Stinson and Heidi Jury-Giles in the musical revue, Songs of the Island.
Hank Stinson, of course, has been exploring Montgomery's creations for quite some time now, and has written three acclaimed musicals of his own based upon the novels Emily of New Moon, The Blue Castle, and Rainbow Valley. In this production, vignettes and songs from these three works have been pulled out and interwoven into a unique character study of the original author. Stinson, who in the playbill credits director and co-conceiver Duncan McIntosh for having "taught me how to tell three stories in one," tells the audience early on that Montgomery can best be approached through her characters.
Each story is introduced and narrated with selected readings pulled directly from the novels themselves. For each narrative, Marlane O'Brien seamlessly shifts between four of Maud's heroines with the simple application of a characteristic hat, scarf, or spirit. Valency Stirling, Emily Starr, Mary Vance and Rosemary West are characters which are each tinged with their own sense of loneliness, and yet are also personified as spirited women with visionary ways of approaching their worlds. O'Brien's rich voice, combined with subtle yet complex emotional treatments, enlivens these characters.
Stinson, for his part, inhabits quirky characters ranging from the childlike Cousin Jimmy, to the misfit Barney, to a chorus of chickens with larger than life personalities. In addition, Jury-Giles emerges subtly from her seat at the grand piano to add a song or a few lines to the ongoing narrative.
The key component of the show lies with a simple, warm, and intimate tone. The space is arranged as a tight theatre-in-the-round, and the setting resembles a cosy rural parlour with the household piano at the centre and antique lanterns hung in the background. At the onset, light is introduced in the form of a small candle carried in by Jury-Giles, and remains luminous and softened throughout the one hour performance. Every prop required by the actors is found either on the top of the piano or hidden in unseen cavities under the surface. Simplicity is the secret.
The Charlottetown Festival is well complemented by including Songs of the Island as a Sunday evening feature, and offers what is both a whimsical and a down-to-earth tribute to PEI's most famous writer.