THE MAGIC FIRE by Lillian Groag, directed by Jackie Maxwell (Shaw). Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 8. $45-$86. 1-800-511-7429. See Out of Town, page 133. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
The magic fire is the jewel at this year's Shaw Festival, a multifaceted memory play that glows with theatrical richness.
Set in 1952 Buenos Aires, the era of Juan and Evita Peron, it follows events in the life of seven-year-old Lise Berg (Lila Bata-Walsh), her family and friends. The action, though, is filtered through the mind of the grown-up Lise (Tara Rosling), now living in the U.S., whose visit to her home conjures a host of recollections.
Lillian Groag's poetic text is filled with detail and rich characters, including Lise's opera-loving father, Otto (Ric Reid), his wife, Amalia (Sharry Flett), various aunts, uncles and grandparents, a politico neighbour and a gay acquaintance. The blended family's contrasting Viennese and Italian sensibilities and the span of several generations give The Magic Fire an epic feel despite its setting in a single household.
The narrative's tendrils run in many directions, requiring viewers to pay careful attention to all the plot lines. But that variety pays off splendidly in the second-act dinner scene, a birthday party for Lise that's also an acting feast for the fine ensemble cast. It's an episode with so many layers that you'll have to see it twice to catch all that happens.
Events in Buenos Aires echo the rise of totalitarianism in 1930s Europe, and the cocooned family sometimes fears and sometimes ignores the politics going on right outside their door. That blur of attitudes also occurs in the elder Lise's recollections of the past. Most of the time, strains of opera - Puccini, Wagner, Verdi - keep the real world at bay.
Jackie Maxwell's direction doesn't capture all the strengths of the script, but there's lots to admire here. And while everyone in the cast has his or her moments, there's especially admirable work by Reid as the warm father, Flett as his self-deceiving wife, Goldie Semple as her bitter sister, an actor barred from the stage because of her political views, and Dan Chameroy as a politically wise neighbour who protects the family.
Rosling is a quiet standout as the elder Lise, who realizes that memory turns out, ironically, not always to be accurate. As she sadly informs us near the end of the play, "Nostalgia lies."