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Minnie McGee

Review by Sean McQuaid

Ah, Georgetown. Seat of scandal, village of villainy, burg of...bad stuff. Actually, Georgetown’s a sweet, sleepy little postcard of a place most of the time, but it did play host to a sordidly sensational trial in 1912. That’s when St. Mary’s Road resident Mary “Minnie” McGee was convicted of poisoning her six children to death. Now, ninety years later, Minnie has returned to Georgetown; not as a murderous ghost bent on vengefully exterminating the townsfolk (note to self: secure the movie rights), but as the star of a new drama recently staged at the historic Kings Playhouse.

Written and directed by McGill University student Kersti Kass (a former Prince Edward Island resident) and performed by assorted McGill students, Minnie McGee is a fictional take on Minnie’s latter-day life in a mental hospital. Tormented by visions of her late abusive husband, Patrick (played by Jason Manzano), Minnie (Kyla Torre) struggles to sustain something resembling sanity. Meanwhile, rookie doctor Alec Cameron (Max Woertendyke), fresh from Montreal, starts work at the mental hospital with his wife Audrey (Liesl Barrell) and their new baby (handy prop and annoying sound effects) in tow. Stacey O’Neill rounds out the cast by doubling as Alec’s meddlesome mother and the jaded Nurse Docherty, both of whom have their doubts about Alec’s modern medical theories—especially after Alec decides to let Minnie perform some housekeeping duties in his own home as part of her therapy.

Seems you can take the girl out of the madhouse, but you can’t take the madhouse out of the girl. Minnie’s new job does little or nothing to slow her ongoing mental deterioration—and as it turns out, her condition is not only chronic, it’s catching. Her friendship with Audrey seems to help further unbalance the depressed and unstable Mrs. Cameron, who misses Montreal, misses her former professional pursuits (she was trained as a nurse) and is struggling with her strange new roles as mother, housewife and Islander. The resultant Minnie-Audrey buddy movie, with its pseudo-feminist quest for freedom and self-determination, smacks of Thelma & Louise—only with the characters headed for a metaphorical cliff rather than a literal one.

Minnie McGee was first workshopped and performed in 1998, then performed again earlier this year as part of the 2002 McGill Drama Festival. The show’s concept is an intriguing original, and Kass crafts some distinctive, appealing bits of characterization, but the script still sounds like a work in progress. How, when and why the characters make their respective emotional transitions is often unclear, and the focus of the show seems somewhat splintered in terms of whose story it’s trying to tell, offering fragmentary portraits of Alec, Audrey and Minnie that never feel fully fleshed-out. The dialogue also rings forced or leading on occasion during moments of exposition or character analysis.

Kass and her cast offer a strong performance of the script, though there are glitches. Barrell’s odd accent comes and goes seemingly at random, Woertendyke takes a few scenes to warm to his role, some of the dialogue gets lost amid the occasional shouting, and the background noise behind the sound effects can be distracting; but Torre crafts a memorably unsettling portrait of a madwoman, Barrell and Woertendyke manage some emotionally striking moments of their own, and the scenes featuring Manzano as the ghostly Patrick foster a wonderfully understated, dream-like atmosphere of dread, a job very well done by Kass and her actors. There’s a lot to like in Minnie McGee, even though there may be a lot of work left to do, and Art Who Productions should be commended for staging such an ambitious production in such a uniquely appropriate venue.

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