The Fate of Robert
Southwestern Ontario just can’t get enough of the Donnelly story. If you live in this area, you know the story, you’ve been to Lucan, you’ve sung the songs, and you’ve seen it on stage. In fact, there are many stage versions of the Donnelly story, each more popular than the last. So Blyth Festival is bringing us the latest – The Last Donnelly Standing opened to a very appreciative full house.
The Last Donnelly Standing, according to playwrights Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt is Robert Donnelly. Garratt, who is Blyth’s Artistic Director, plays Robert in the one-man-show. But by his own admission, Garratt explains that Robert wasn’t actually the last Donnelly standing – that dubious honour goes to his brother Patrick.
If by chance, you aren’t familiar with the history, the Donnellys were a rowdy family of Irish settlers who squatted on land and farmed it near Lucan, Ontario. It’s been suggested that they even brought a family feud with them from Ireland, but in any case, it’s evident they weren’t good neighbours. The father, James, even served time in Kingston Penitentiary for killing his neighbour over a land dispute. His wife, seven sons, and a daughter apparently shared his hot temper. The boys were always in trouble for stealing, brawling or ripping off business competitors, but seldom did the charges stick. The so-called Black Donnellys proclaimed their innocence and loudly cried that they were the scapegoats for every wrongdoing in the county. On the other hand, their opponents said that the Donnellys intimidated any witnesses and therefore the charges were thrown out.
The feuding all came to a tragic end on February 4, 1880 when a group of vigilantes took the law into their hands and stormed the Donnelly homestead, killing four family members and burning it to the ground. Then they went down the road and killed another brother. No one was ever found guilty of those five murders.
In this new rendition of the Donnelly tale, Thompson and Garratt have told the story through Robert’s eyes. On opening night, Garratt rode up to the theatre on horseback in character as Robert before taking to the stage. But during the performance, Garratt occasionally takes on the roles of others who are in conversation with Robert. Garratt’s performance is high energy throughout, holding the audience’s rapt attention.
We learn about Robert’s close relationship with his brothers, and how he falls in love with Annie. Audience members are invited on stage to be wedding guests, but suddenly they are jurors sending Robert to jail for a short sojourn. (He is released early to attend a brother’s funeral, who was stabbed in a bar room brawl.)
Robert assumes that we are there to hear the gory details about the night of the massacre. But unfortunately, he wasn’t present. So Garratt takes on the role of little Johnny O’Connor, a visitor in the Donnelly house that night, who escaped death by hiding under the bed, then running out when the fire was lit. A photo of Johnny is projected on the back of the stage with one sock and shoe off, so Garratt does the same, as he assumes Johnny’s persona. But no explanation is offered for the strange pose in the photo. Other details are also skipped or glossed over.
Not only does Garratt shift characters from time to time, he also steps out of character, talking to the audience. On opening night, when the bane of live theatre – the ringing cell phone – occurred, Garratt told the offender to answer the phone and tell the caller they were at the theatre!
At times, the production seems like a mix of improv or stream of consciousness. Garratt as Robert talks a fast pace, and the story tends to jump around. This will no doubt smooth out during the run of the show.
There may be some anachronisms: the show opens with Robert telling us that the Donnelly men “spin around each other like planets in the cosmos” and “hurl ideas like comets”. It seems unlikely he would have used these similes in the 1800s. In fact, in 1910, so little was known about comets that many people were convinced the world was going to end when Hally’s Comet crashed into Earth.
Nevertheless, this show does give us another side of the Donnellys. Garratt sings their little folk songs, recites some of the brothers’ poetry, and talks about their loves and passions. Billy was very intelligent and Robert was a natty dresser. Who knew these brawling bad boys had a softer side?
Donnelly buffs, and even those new to the story, will enjoy this interesting take on history. We will never know all the details about the lives and deaths of the Donnellys, but this provides plenty for speculation. Is it fact or folklore? We can wonder, even if Robert wasn’t actually the last Donnelly standing.
The Last Donnelly Standing continues at the Blyth Festival in repertoire until September 2. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: Gil Garratt as Robert Donnelly. Photo by Terry Manzo.
The Last Donnelly Standing
By Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt
Co-creator: Beth Kates
Directed by Paul Thompson
Performed by Gil Garratt
Blyth Festival Theatre, Blyth
August 4 to September 2, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson