The Last Tasmanian
By Herb Curtis, adapted by Jenny Munday
Theatre New Brunswick
Theatre New Brunswick's last production under the leadership of Walter Learning, The Last Tasmanian, is, appropriately enough, one with a strong flavor of New Brunswick, both backstage and up front. The script, like the successful The Americans Are Coming of two years ago, has been adapted from a Herb Curtis novel set in the Miramichi by New Brunswick actress, comedian and writer Jenny Munday. (We still claim her, though she now lives in Nova Scotia).
The Last Tasmanian is much less a comedy than was The Americans Are Coming. From Curtis's prize-winning book Munday has carved out two stories, and in the process she's pared away much of the down-home rural-character comedy that sparked the laughter in the earlier play. Perhaps this is because she didn't want to seem to be condescending or making fun -- but the result is that, except for a couple of "the very best's" there wasn't as much of the Miramichi tang in the language as we might have expected, or as many of the local jokes and references that leavened the earlier play.
This time, the focus is more serious. At the center of the script is the relationship between the about-to-drop-out-of-high-school Shadrack Nash and the aging Hilda Porter, a retired schoolteacher who hires Shad as a live-in odd-job worker. In the background are the difficult relations in the Nash family. Shadrack's mother, Elva, is -- at least for the first act -- a wooden-hearted, sanctimoniously holy harridan, while his father, Bob, is a bluff, hearty woodsworker with a soft spot for his errant son. Although the family's relations are sometimes played for laughs, frequently Elva's tirades against her son and her husband run just a little dark for easy comedy.
Playing against these two sets of characters is Shadrack's best friend, Dryfly Ramsay, who in Munday's script acts primarily as a foil -- a sort of backwoods Horatio to Shadrack's Brennen Siding and Blackville Hamlet.
At the center of this production is a fine, focused and touching performance by Anne Hardcastle as the aged schoolteacher. From the moment Shadrack turns up at her door, hesitantly applying for the job he's seen advertised in the local store, to her death in his arms, Hardcastle creates a powerful intensity and focus, with her stooped, halting walk and intense glare of suspicion and interest. Playing against her, Dean Armstrong as Shad creates an entirely believable portrait of a young man in the process of learning something profoundly important about responsibility and caring for others, about aging and the value of human beings, and, yes, about love. The script walks right on the line between drama and sentimentality, and is saved from falling over by the intensity and authenticity of the relationship between the two characters. The moment when Shadrack and Dryfly, having betrayed a promise to Hilda to bring "a party" back to her isolated home, return to find her asleep in her chair, still waiting for them, is a dramatic one in the best sense of the word: we're able to watch growth occurring as Shadrack confronts his own irresponsibility.
And Hilda's decision that it's Shadrack to whom she should pass on the story of the last Tasmanian -- the story is, in important ways, her legacy -- is a powerful dramatization of how stories contain the values of a culture and allow them to be passed from one generation to another.
The relationship between Shadrack's parents is less engaging and convincing. Dean Hawes is a sufficiently hearty and direct man of the woods, with a wonderful, booming laugh, and Carole Zorro does a thorough job of creating his puritanical, shrieking, frustrated stick of a wife, but the characters were exaggerated just a little too much for me to believe in her softening toward her son and her husband by the end. The scenes in which their relationship occurred often seemed truncated, or thin. They seemed not to offer enough dramatic material to let us see what it is that could change her -- or to present her as having the potential for that softness from the outset.
Similarly, the depth of the relationship between Dryfly and Shadrack seemed to depend on our knowing the previous play, or the novel, and not to be dramatized here fully enough for us to become involved in it. Anthony Black, as Dryfly, seemed caught in the role of expository device. Often, it seemed, he was on stage solely in order to allow explanation to get done, and his character never became entirely clear.
The many short scenes, almost blackouts, in Munday's script were made possible by another of the amazing sets we've come to expect of Patrick Clarke. This one, set in a frame that I heard described as "industrial woods," included three movable acting spaces -- the Nash's kitchen, Hilda Porter's kitchen, and a group of trees which stood for "outdoors." Each module slid silently and swiftly into the center of the stage on demand, allowing the production to move from one location to another with almost as little effort and distraction as a film might.
But this fluidity may also, paradoxically, have been a problem. Many of the scenes, as I have suggested, seemed oddly short or truncated, almost sketches for scenes rather than fully realized dramatic moments. For instance, at one point Shadrack's parents work themselves up to go to visit him at Hilda Porter's house, to ask him to come back home. They arrive, Shadrack says he doesn't want to go home, and they leave. The entire encounter takes perhaps three minutes, and this is not presented as either odd or rude, but is framed as perfectly normal. More generally, the chronology wasn't always very clear, and long chunks of time seemed to drop out of sight with no reference to them (it isn't at all clear what happens between Christmas and Hilda Porter's death, or, in fact, exactly when she dies).
These matters are more important than they may seem, because they can create a sense that the whole production hasn't quite found its focus -- an impression reinforced on opening night by the number of missed lines or stumbles, something we're not used to at TNB. It's hard not to suspect that if Munday and director Donnie Bowes, whose skills I've admired since his student days, had had a little longer to go on shaping, focusing and pruning this script and this production they might have brought it to realize more of its potential.
I hope that will happen. In the meantime, we need to be grateful that the resources of TNB exist, and are being used to support local work of this calibre. And given that this is not the best of times at TNB, we need to hope fervently that they'll be able to continue to take this kind of risk.