BELLE MORAL by Ann-Marie MacDonald, directed by Alisa Palmer, with Fiona Byrne, Jeff Meadows, Donna Belleville and Peter Millard. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 7. $28-$82. 1-800-511-7429. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Part gothic mystery, part scientific exploration, part feminist dialogue, Ann-Marie MacDonald 's Belle Morale is all theatre - and the best offering at the Shaw Festival this summer.
Its central figure is the passionate Pearl MacIsaac ( Fiona Byrne ), a believer in evolution who's doing scientific work in her Scottish house at the turn of the 20th century. Her lazy, prodigal brother Victor ( Jeff Meadows ), addicted to shortbread and as unconventional as she is (he refers to himself as "the tragic hero of a comic farce") returns home to inherit the estate after the death of their father. Victor's a romantic and Pearl a realist; it's not surprising that they argue regularly.
But they aren't aware of the mysteries in their family, of secrets kept by their aunt Flora ( Donna Belleville ) and the doctor ( Peter Millard ) who proposes a sexless marriage to the intellectually curious Pearl.
MacDonald's script, bright and satiric, is full of the kind of philosophical arguments that fit well into the Shaw's roster of works. It's the kind of piece we lean into to catch the banter, the discussion and the laughter. With such elements as a dog-like human ear, a strange presence in the attic and talk of fairies, it's also highly dramatic. Few other writers are so good at telling a story while arguing an intellectual point.
The production, directed by Alisa Palmer , matches the level of the script. Against designer Judith Bowden 's striking backdrop of the Scottish coast and antlered furniture, the company teases out the story's surprises in an entertaining fashion.
Pearl is one of Byrne's best creations, while Belleville dithers archly as the not-so-foolish aunt and Millard makes the devious doctor at one moment admirable and the next reprehensible. The other standout in the company is Bernard Behrens as the ancient retainer called, strangely, Young Farleigh.
Vibrant and full of a Shavian-style life energy, Belle Morale is, in theatrical terms, at the top of the evolutionary chain.