A National Arts Centre, Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage, Neptune Theatre, Grand Theatre production
Not having read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel, I was unfamiliar with the Piper family saga. It is a lauded and beloved fixture of our literary landscape, so I’ve had a nagging sense of Canadian shame for having neglected it. Knowing that Hannah Moscovitch’s adaptation was to be six hours of theatre, I went into Fall On Your Knees somewhat daunted yet buzzing with anticipation.
Moscovitch, and co-creator/director, Alisa Palmer have split this multi-generational tale—taking us from early 20th century Nova Scotia to the Harlem Jazz scene of the 1930s and beyond—into two parts. I didn’t find Part One: Family Tree particularly affecting. The meta-theatrical flourishes—the entire cast seated on a bare stage awaiting their scenes, a chair and lantern suspended in the air—seemed limp and banal, calling to mind the cozy, deliberate contrivance of Our Town. An array of ribbons stretching up and out the sides of the wide stage seemed stylish, but noisy.
The performances, from the entire ensemble, were grounded and authentic, but the production as a whole, though handsome and serviceable, felt overlong and tedious. Deborah Hay’s quirky turn as Frances Piper was a refreshing highlight and became my emotional anchor to the story; her jerky, childlike manner and offbeat humour transcended all the cumbersome importance that seemed to hang in the air around her.
I was lukewarm on that first instalment and acutely aware of the runtime. Then Part Two: The Diary completely blindsided me! After the drab staging and plodding set-ups of Part One, the follow-up felt like a sudden burst of colour and heat. Every moment felt charged and urgent. The vast stage—which, up until then, had been dwarfing timid and contained little pockets of isolated dramatic activity—was suddenly teeming with dynamic life. With just a few curtain panels descending into the wide frame, Camellia Koo’s set suddenly explodes into three dimensions. Leigh Ann Vardy‘s lighting conjures the scintillating energy of a Harlem jazz club.
And there I was at the end: a sobbing mess, determined to finally read the damn book.
The story begins in Cape Breton, where a piano-tuner, James Piper (Tim Campbell) marries Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca), the thirteen-year-old daughter of wealthy, traditionalist Lebanese immigrants. Dreaming of adventures in New York, she struggles to adjust to mundane domestic life and the tension between the couple never quite resolves. As their daughters arrive on the scene, dysfunction governs their household.
James develops a lascivious attachment to the eldest, Kathleen (Samantha Hill). Right off, we sense dark times ahead. At a young age, she exhibits musical ability, and is sent off to the New York of her neglected mother’s fantasies to be trained at the Metropolitan Opera. Hill captures all the determination of an ambitious youngster, though it isn’t until Part Two—when her New York life is revealed—that her arrogance becomes properly endearing. Even at his most vile moments, Campbell colours James with a mournful self-loathing that permeates his every gesture. He shows us a man who yearns desperately yet wreaks emotional havoc with his awkward fumbling through manhood.
The other sisters—the traumatized and provocative Frances (Hay), the domineering Mercedes (Jenny L Wright) and the youngest, Lily (Eva Foote), crippled by polio—negotiate a harsh Maritime life as their family tree branches out with scandals both private and public. As we meander through with many small scenes and jump forward in time, the play feels like a highlight reel of the story. Part One especially can be confusing with regards to exactly what age characters are at any given time.
As characters die, their spirits vex the living. Without any dialogue until the end, Dakota Jamal Wellman has an quietly mythic presence as the ethereal Ambrose. The attic of the Piper family home is especially haunted and the sisters are intimately aware of the psychic stains of their past. The traditional theatre ghost light that guards the stage when the actors leave seems to echo this spectral awareness.
After her death, we learn about Kathleen’s life in New York from her diary. Her operatic training is initially tortuous—Antoine Yared’s mannered and disdainful Maestro is a comic delight—and she finds solace and inspiration in the burgeoning Harlem jazz scene. She also asserts herself into the life of her piano accompanist, Rose Lacroix (Amaka Umeh) and they become lovers. Umeh has a deeply compelling presence. At first guarded, she exudes purposeful restraint. When her defences drop and her Doc Rose persona comes out, she’s radiant. One of the most electric scenes in the whole production is the moment she puts on her father’s suit.
There is an intense and immersive musicality here. From Kathleen’s youthful and rambunctious rendition of Oh, My Darling Clementine to her late operatic triumph, a running joke about Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and the sexy, exhilarating urgency of Janelle Cooper’s jazz numbers as Sweet Jessie Hogan—music is an eccentric and devastating character in the story. Sean Mayes original score pulls from diverse musical styles to immerse us in the world.
Fleshing out the remaining secondary characters, the rest of the ensemble—Diane Flacks, Drew Moore, Tony Ofori and Maryem Tollar—help convey the nuanced, complex humanity of this story.
Examining the immigrant experience, interracial dynamics, queer identity, generational trauma, children—abused, drowned, hidden and found—this story is brutal, heartbreaking and, eventually, genuinely hopeful. Through all the festering guilt, resentment and violence of three generations, the ending offers such honest and earned redemption. The heightened theatricality, at first so limp and conventional, leads to a stirring finale.
Fall On Your Knees has a slow, relentless build. The first part tried my patience; in retrospect, though, I understand how even this aspect of the experience was integral to the whole. Palmer’s production, meticulously considered, takes a long time to play its hand. It’s a tiresome journey, but holy shit, does it ever pay off!