NO GREAT MISCHIEF by David S. Young with the company, from the novel by Alistair MacLeod, directed by Richard Rose, with David Fox, Stephen Guy-McGrath, Nancy Palk, Geoffrey Pounsett, Jody Richardson, Mike Ross and R.H. Thomson. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Runs to December 12, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $27-$33, Sunday pwyc-$15, stu/sr discounts. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNN
Family both past and present is the glue that holds humanity together, a truism that Alistair MacLeod spins out engagingly and poetically in his award-winning novel No Great Mischief .
In the stage version by playwright David S. Young and the performers, two modern brothers of the MacDonald clan, Alexander and Calum, are the focus for looking at the family's history, as far back as the 1790s emigration of an earlier Calum MacDonald from Scotland to Cape Breton.
It's always a tricky job deciding what to include and what to leave out of an adaptation of this sort. Fans of the book may miss Alexander's sister or have problems with the telescoping of some emotionally vivid scenes into a few lines of dialogue. But a stage piece should exist on its own merit, and this Tarragon production is often both respectful and respectable.
Its narrator is Alexander ( R.H. Thomson ), a successful dentist who feels in some way he's escaped his Cape Breton roots to live in Ontario. But the pull of his older, alcoholic brother Calum ( David Fox ) is inescapable, and we first meet Alexander as he rides a road of memories to the Toronto flophouse where Calum lives.
The play revisits the family history and its emotional legacies as the cast of eight becomes various family members as well as dogs, horses and instrumentalists. In this world, melody becomes as sharp an inducer of memory as smell, and the characters' frequent breaking into song brings an added quality the book can't supply. The climactic confrontation between miners, in fact, begins as a musical competition between two factions and spills over into a more lethal battle.
The key characters - one sibling who avoids life and another who confronts it - are strongly and winningly drawn. Thomson creates a conflicted Alexander who wants a new life but can't escape his old one; Fox is a splendidly testy, strong-willed Calum, who sinks by the story's end into a small-voiced little boy, dependent on his fraternal caregiver.
Grandma, the only feminine force in this world, is often forced to spout home truths, but Nancy Palk gives her a warmth and compassion that go deeper than words. The other actors, in multiple roles, fill out the universe of family, friends and enemies.
Director Richard Rose expertly moves the action from past to present and brings a strong theatricality to episodes like the trip home after Alexander's graduation and scenes in the mines.
But there's a problem with the first half of the play, for the storytelling lacks a proper emotional resonance. That disconnect disappears toward the end, notably in the brothers' drive home, memories trailing behind them like cans tied to a newlywed's car.