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TNB's Anne of Green Gables

Review by Sean McQuaid

Sending an average Islander to see a new version of Anne of Green Gables is not unlike sending any reasonably well-rounded adult to see the latest version of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol or some other universally familiar classic; in either case, you've experienced the story so many times in so many different incarnations that it's already an integral part of your cultural landscape. Seen it all before, been there, done that; but imagination and innovation mixed with a little passion can breathe new life into old favourites. Theatre New Brunswick has achieved something familiar yet fresh with its 2001 touring production of Anne, Paul Ledoux's new adaptation of the beloved Lucy Maud Montgomery novel.

The story remains the same: a melodramatically imaginative orphan girl named Anne Shirley (played here by Kelly O'Neill) is accidentally adopted by rural Prince Edward Island siblings Marilla (Janet Amos) and Matthew (Lee J. Campbell), aging farmers who had wanted an orphan boy to help with their chores at Green Gables. Mistrusted and disdained because of her orphan background and ridiculed because of her eccentric personality, the preternaturally plucky Anne nevertheless manages to carve out a life for herself in her new home, winning the love of her guardians and the affectionate respect of her community.

It's a very well-cast production. Amos adroitly conjures the gruff but vulnerable Marilla, Campbell crafts a fine portrait of the timid but big-hearted Matthew, and Martha Irving is an oddly endearing irritant as their acerbic neighbour, Rachel Lynde. The rest of the cast are all physically slight, youthful, energetic players who function equally well as the children of Avonlea and the adults they grow into over the course of the story. The bright, bubbly Raquel Duffy is ideal as Diana Barry (Anne's best friend); Jen MacDowell brings appealing vitality to the relatively thankless role of second-best friend Ruby Gillis; Tessa McKim is pouty perfection as Anne's spiteful rival, Josie Pye; and Christian Barry manages a sort of simultaneously cocky and clueless charisma as Gilbert, the boy they all adore.

Anne Shirley, of course, is the star of the story, and the vibrant O'Neill rises to the occasion with an overpowering, over-the-top, scene-stealing gusto that is never inappropriate to the character-Anne is a creature of larger-than-life emotion and jarring mood swings, and O'Neill brings these qualities to life with energy and verve, though she is also plausibly earnest when she has to be. A native Islander (as is Duffy), O'Neill has been waiting her whole life to play this part, and her enthusiastic portrayal does the role ample justice.

By comparison to the better-known musical adaptation of the book, this play is a stripped-down Anne in some respects-fewer characters, fewer distinct settings (Anne's school exploits, though discussed, are almost entirely absent, for instance, and Anne's academic mentor Miss Stacey is nowhere to be seen); however, less is more in some respects. Devoid of all the song-and-dance that layers further emotional excess atop an already sugary-sentimental story in the musical version, this new play allows for a somewhat more pure, uncluttered realization of Montgomery's characters and dialogue-Anne unplugged, one might say. It doesn't always click (the ending is rather anticlimactically muted for instance), but for the most part it feels just right.

It looks and sounds just right, too. Director Patricia Vanstone, aided by the compact, impressionistic sets of Michael Gianfrancesco and the dreamy lighting of Robin A. Paterson, crafts a subdued, visually charming Anne that makes the musical look garishly cartoonish by comparison, and the playful dances, chases and other business that fill the gaps between scenes give the show a smooth, unbroken sense of flow that makes the time pass both pleasantly and quickly. It's an admirably artful Anne, and a worthy addition to the Montgomery literary family.

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