OIL AND WATER by Robert Chafe, directed by Jillian Keiley (Artistic Fraud/Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst). Runs to May 6, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $30-$40. 416-504-9971. See listing. Rating: NNNN
In Robert Chafe's Oil And Water, based on a true story, a punishing 1942 Atlantic storm brings out the humanity in a small Newfoundland town. But the tale doesn't end there, for what happens in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, sends ripples decades into the future.
The production is another splendid one by Artistic Fraud, the company that's previously brought Afterimage and Fear Of Flight to Toronto.
Young Phillips Lanier (Ryan Allen) and Langston (Mike Payette) are the two black sailors on an American ship sailing to Europe with war supplies; both are badly treated by the other sailors, especially when the ship founders off the Newfoundland coast. Taken in and cared for by the local townspeople, Philips has his first experience of warmth and welcome in a white household.
Jump 30 years in time, and the older Lanier (Jeremiah Sparks), living in Boston, has to face the prejudice of angry whites when his daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue) is bused to an integrated school.
Chafe blends the two tales, along with that of a St. Lawrence family confronting health and financial problems because of the husband's (Jody Richardson) work in the mines; his wife, Violet (Petrina Bromley), is dead-set against his returning below ground, while their nephew, Levi (Mark Power), has just started working with his uncle.
If the first act's various narratives are sometimes blurred and performances occasionally stiff, the second act is a series of powerful emotional moments that build to a rousing, moving conclusion.
Give lots of credit to director Jillian Keiley, whose inventive staging adds an extra dimension to Chafe's incisive dialogue. The storm scene is especially memorable, convincingly created with two buckets of water; other moments are just as powerful, especially the scene in which the oil-covered Phillips awakens in Violet's care.
Just as important and impressive is the a cappella soundscape created by Andrew Craig and musical director Kellie Walsh, a blend of mostly wordless spiritual and Newfoundland melodies, performed largely in the background by the entire cast.
There's lots of fine acting, too, including that of Neema Bickersteth as the spirit of Phillips's great-grandmother, a slave who's learned to be cautious around white people; Alison Woolridge as a photographer who documents the town's care of the sailors; and Clint Butler as a white sailor disdainful of his black fellows.
Watch Bromley's subtle work as she establishes Violet's tart exterior, complaining about her life and her husband. You'll have a totally different view of her by the end, as she becomes a source of the community's compassion.
Shawn Kerwin's set, lit by Leigh Ann Vardy, is a wonder of simplicity, a sextant-like central construction of ladders and boards that suggests the sailor's world; that structure, along with buckets, other boards and two side ladders, suggests the play's three worlds with conciseness and immediacy.