Another Examination of the Donnelly Massacre   

The Donnelly story has been told so many times that one might wonder what could possibly be new in Vigilante, currently on stage at The Grand Theatre in London.  So you might be forgiven if you thought you could skip this show.  But don’t miss it.  It’s a new look at the Donnelly massacre and a new way of presenting it.

Those of us in Southwestern Ontario know the story about the Donnelly family who farmed near Lucan in the mid-1880s.  They were a rough bunch, known for their drinking, fighting and vandalism.  The father even went to jail for murder.  Then in February 1880, a group of neighbours decided to take revenge.  Five members of the Donnelly family were murdered in the night by a group of vigilantes.  They were later tried for the murders, but no jury ever convicted them.  In most of the folklore, the vigilantes were justified in getting rid of the trouble-making Donnellys.

This version of the Donnelly tale takes us back to Ireland and offers some history about the feuding families who brought their hatred with them when they immigrated to the Lucan area in the 1840s.  For a change, Vigilante gives us a story that is more sympathetic to the Donnelly clan.  The father, James (David Leyshon) has many redeeming qualities, and he and Johannah (Jan Alexandra Smith) are a loving couple.  Shining a more favourable light on the Donnellys may have some truth to it.  After all, history is written by the survivors, who of course, would have put the vigilantes in a positive position.  Common sense tells us that there should have been plenty of blame on both sides of this feud that ended so horrifically.

But while Vigilante has given us a new view of the Donnelly story, the truth has been handled loosely.  Things we know for a fact have been ignored; we presume the playwright took poetic licence as it would make a more dramatic tale.  This version has James Sr. being hanged for murder when in fact he spent seven years in Kingston Penitentiary.   In reality, there were seven sons and a daughter in the Donnelly Family.  As well, on the night of the massacre, a visiting niece was killed.  Vigilante has only six sons in the story (including one named Daniel who didn’t exist, and it ignores sons James Jr. and Patrick.)

The issue of not sticking to known facts would only be a problem here in Southwestern Ontario, where so many of us are familiar with the story.  In other theatres across Canada, no one would be concerned about this.

Vigilante, created by Catalyst Theatre, first came to the Grand two years ago for a short stay.  It proved so popular that Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum brought it back this year.  The cast is the same as two years ago, but for one.  All eight cast members are excellent, each of them representing a Donnelly, as well as taking on the other roles of the vigilantes.  They speak with each other and directly to the audience.  All of them have mastered the Irish accent with delightful lilts.  And while they all give strong performances, Jan Alexandra Smith is outstanding as the domineering mother, Johannah Donnelly.  Because the script kills off her husband, she becomes the most powerful character.  Smith makes her a formidable woman, teaching her sons to always fight back and never back down.

The music is an interesting weave of Celtic and rock, setting the tone for the violence.  A tin whistle and violin contrast the angry sounds, giving it a lighter Irish tone.   My only concern was the decision to have band members scattered around the stage.  I found it distracting when one of them moved a bit while they weren’t playing an instrument, drawing attention away from the actors.

Full credit goes to Director Jonathan Christenson who also wrote the script, music and lyrics.  It must be fulfilling for him to bring his creative vision all the way to the stage.

Vigilante provides a commanding evening of powerful acting, solid singing and good music. But more importantly, it provides a more sympathetic look at the Black Donnellys and a reminder that there are two sides to every story.

Vigilante continues at the Grand Theatre, London until March 9.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit

Photo: Jan Alexandra Smith as the fearless Johannah Donnelly.  Photo by Dahlia Katz.  

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Christenson
Directed by Jonathan Christenson
Choreographed by Laura Krewski
Musical Director (band) Matthew Skopyk
Musical Director (singers) Jonathan Christianson
Performed by Jan Alexandra Smith, David Leyshon, Kris Joseph, Eric Morin, Carson Nattrass, Scot Walters, Benjamin Wardle, Eric Wigston.
Produced by Catalyst Theatre
Grand Theatre, London
February 19 to March 9, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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