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A CurtainUp Review
The Stone Angel

by Aristotle Domingo

I read Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel during my senior year in high school and haven't given much thought to it since. James W. Nichol's adaptation for the stage was definitely a great opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the story of Hagar Shipley, the aging woman looking back over her ninety years of life

In the Canadian Stage Company's co-production with The Grand Theatre in London, director Janet Wright has filled the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre with a gifted cast. Veteran stage actor Nora McLellan, a regular at the Shaw Festival, brings Hagar vividly to life. We see the demons of her past on her face, and understand her desire to "never be weak - not for one moment. " It is a haunting portrait of pride held onto fiercely until death.

The play is done in a series of flashbacks prompted by the ninety-year old Hagar's fear that her son Marvin (Robert Perschini) and his wife ( Christine MacInnis) will prevail in their plan to put her into a retirement home. My own fear before watching the show was that a play based on a novel which happens in the main character's mind -- switching back and forth between reality and her past -- could not work.

My reservations proved unfounded. Playwright James W. Nichol's adaptation is nothing short of sheer brilliance. The stage comes fully to life with the novel's many characters. Hagar's strict and controlling father, an alcoholic husband, her two sons, and the many people who shaped her life -- they're all part of this moving play. Ms. McLellan rises ably and gracefully to the challenge of playing Hagar as a child, a teenager, a wife, a mother, and a very old woman.

Hagar's story unfolds in the farm town of Manawaka, Manitoba. Set designer Charlotte Dean provides a collage of part naturalistic and expressionistic images -- the farm lands, the town and the market, Hagar's childhood home, the home in which she lived as a grown woman, and, yes, the retirement home that is her final resting place. The staging, while not grand, provides enough atmosphere to give the audience the feel and sense of Hagar's environment, without ever distracting from the drama.

This is not a first-time production of the stage adaptation of the novel. When it first premiered at the Blyth Festival in 1991 reviews were mixed but it has since toured across Canada in entirely different forms from the Blyth premiere. The production reviewed here is yet another incarnation. It arrives at the Canadian Stage Company from London, Ontario's Grande Theatre where it was well received.

Novelist Margaret Laurence has been dead since 1984 but The Stone Angel is still in print and much read, especially by high school students. To obtain the paperback edition. go herel

Adapted from the novel by Margaret Laurence by James W. Nichol
Directed by Janet Wright
With (in alphabetical order) Elizabeth Brown Quyen Hua, Barry MacGregor, Christine MacInnis,Nora McLellan, Robert Persichini, Brett Porter, Michael Spencer-Davis, Glyn Thomas
Set and costume design: Charlotte Dean
Lighting design: Kevin Fraser
Original Music: Don Horsburgh
Canadian Stage Co/Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto (416/368-3110;416/872-1111). Through 4/27/99

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© Elyse Sommer, February 1999