JC’S THEATRE SPOTLIGHT – The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams

How does one turn the story of Newfoundland’s entry to Confederation into a “show”?  Well, start with a talented homegrown author, Wayne Johnston, and one Giller-Prize finalist book.  Enter a fictional strong female lead (journalist Sheilagh Fielding) as a provocative foil for the diminutive and occasionally dull Joey Smallwood … and now you’re onto something.

In this Neptune Theatre staging of Johnston’s The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams, Newfoundland is cast as an endlessly cold, snowy place whose desolate beauty is alternately revered and mocked – Smallwood’s acerbic, tragicomic father (Steve O’Connell) repeatedly calls it “Old Lost Land”. 

The heat comes from the characters, something this rocky Terre-Neuve has never been short on.

Since Sheilagh wasn’t an actual influence in Joey’s life, I should be forgiven for wanting more of the couple’s passionate interplay.  The tension between the two (Colin Furlong’s Smallwood and the relative Amazonian, Carmen Grant, as Fielding) was palpable, at times sexual.  At one point, the couple’s battle of words plays out in a cat-and-mouse chase of their office desks around the snow laden stage, face to face, flakes a-flyin’, as Joey’s St. John’s radio broadcasts counter-attack his rival Fielding’s sharp tongued newspaper columns.  Smallwood evolves from political flunky to unlikely leader, strategizing a way into the hearts and minds of fellow Newfoundlanders, and crafting a more promising future for The Rock as part of Canada.

In the end, we’re left with a boatload of unrequited feelings … between Joey and Sheilagh, Joey and his wife Clara, and Joey and his beloved homeland.  He would spend much of his life attempting to achieve something on behalf of Newfoundland “commensurate with the greatness of the land itself”.  No easy task, one requiring a single-minded focus.  And the advice from his father echoed several times through the show, to “fall in love with a woman, not a country …”, presuming that a country could not love him back.  Although in this case, it did.  Smallwood would serve for 23 years as Newfoundland’s first Premier.  Our only Father of Confederation to be born in the 20th Century, who nearly made it to the 21st, passing away in 1991.

The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams is a stunningly staged work of historic fiction.  The acting is sharp throughout, though I would have enjoyed a sharper edge to the local dialects – the play is sadly short on “by’s” and the familiar Newfoundland lilt. At least to my ear, most of the accents played like a mild Irish.  And while Colony is no War And Peace, Joey Smallwood’s story apparently requires three acts, two intermissions, and a marathon three hours to tell.  Even after chopping out the entire first half of the book.  So come prepared to settle in and indulge in some fantasy, some reality, and a part of your history you never knew you could care so much about.   

The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams plays Fountain Hall at Neptune Theatre until March 12.