Reviewed by James Karas
Fall on Your Knees is a 6-hour theatre epic, played in two parts at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto. The first part is titled Family Tree and it covers the period from the early 1900s to the 1960s. This is a review of Part 1 which centres on the lives and experiences of the Piper family from the time James Piper falls in love and marries the 13-year old Materia Mahmoud to the time when they become grandparents. The family saga continues in Part 2 with recollections and revelations from the past.
We witness the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the lives of the extended family over many decades. There are moments of happiness and humour; there are fights, assaults, and murderous attacks. We get to see them all in mostly realistic theatre that holds its own for much of the time but also strolls through the lives of the characters with some strain on our attention span.
For a start, we are in Cape Breton and we meet James Piper (Tim Campbell), a strapping young man, a piano tuner, who meets Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca) and they fall in love. Mr. Mahmoud, (Antoine Yared), her father, a Lebanese immigrant, holds the old-world morality, disapproves of the relationship and ties up Piper and gives him a few hammer blows. James and Materia get married and they are deliciously happy. For a short while. Their relationship turns ugly. Details withheld.
They have three daughters, Kathleen (Samantha Hill), Frances (Deborah Hay) and Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright). There are some moments of happiness but most of their lives are punctured with misery and distress. Kathleen has a promising singing career and she goes to New York to study to become an opera singer. She returns home pregnant with tragic consequences. Frances is the family clown and Hay takes advantage of every opportunity to create comic scenes. Frances becomes a hooker.
James goes off to fight in The Great War, is invalided and discharged. Eventually he supplements his work as a piano tuner by engaging in bootlegging. He also drinks to excess. Mercedes stays home to look after his needs and endures his perennial dictatorial conduct. Though he shows affection and has some positive traits, Piper has a violent streak in him and he strikes his wife and daughters brutally with the expected consequences. He dotes on Kathleen with suggestions of incestuous attraction to her, hates Frances and loves Mercedes.
The is an intentionally sketchy description of the plot involving the central characters. The play has a much larger canvas with the Mahmoud family at the beginning, Frances’s experience in a Catholic school run by nuns, the bar where Frances sells herself and the story of their “sister” Lilly (Eva Foote) and the Piper’s Jewish neighbour Mrs. Luvovitz (a funny Diane Flacks who also acts as a nun), and a number of other characters.
We meander through the lives of the characters and there are flashes of violence that are shocking in their brutality. When James Piper strikes, as he mistakenly hits one daughter, he loosens a tooth. Other assaults are more targeted and lethal. But there are issues with the development of the plot. The chronology of events is sometimes opaque and I was not always certain about the identity of some of the characters.
Frances’ descent into the lowlife is graphically illustrated and we have our breath taken away when Materia attends to the delivery of Kathleen’s child(ren) when she returns from New York impregnated by an unknown man.
The acting is superb from Campbell’s hulking Piper displaying decency with an undercurrent of brutality and perhaps incestuous interest in his daughter. Deborah Hay gets the juicy role of Frances and she gets kudos for making the most of it among the unfunny roles played by the other actors. Flacks’ Mrs. Luvovits is a decent woman with some humour that again becomes noticeable.
The play has a rich assortment of music with a band on stage playing. It is a good diversion and perhaps appropriate considering James Piper’s trade.
The set by Camelia Koo features black cables around the playing area and rising to the top of the stage. The scene changes from the Mahmoud residence to the Piper house, to New York, to school, to the sleazy bar where Frances works with speed and a minimum of props being used.
The adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s popular novel took 8 years and it has involved some significant persons in Canadian theatre and generous amounts of money. Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch adapted the novel for the stage. The two are also credited as co-creators as well as writer (Moscovitch) and director (Palmer). There are seventeen other people listed as members of the creative team. Five theatre companies are credited for the production, namely the National Arts Centre, Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage, Neptune Theatre, Halifax and the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.
The production will travel to Hamilton, London, Halifax and other theatres across Canada.
Fall on Your Knees, Part 1 by Alisa Palmer and Hannah Moscovitch, adapted from the novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald ran until February 5, 2023, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appears in the newspaper.