The Wilberforce Hotel: History made relevant, accessible in world premiere

12 Jul
Sophia Walker as Milly Steward and Marcel Stewart as Austin Steward in Wilberforce Hotel. Photo by Terry Manzo for the Blyth Festival

Sophia Walker as Milly Steward and Marcel Stewart as Austin Steward in Wilberforce Hotel. Photo by Terry Manzo for the Blyth Festival

By Diva Danica Rush

The sounds of The Wilberforce Hotel are foreign to Blyth Festival audiences of today. Musical bones, shackle keys and clapping rocks harmonize with raw and spirited voices to create soul-aching melodies that never had a chance to root themselves into Ontario’s landscape.

A sense of familiar backdrops the little known story of the Wilberforce Hotel, a play wonderfully executed in its world premiere last week at the Blyth Festival.

You don’t need to know anything about the Wilberforce Colony to enjoy this production. From the moment it starts, the story is easily placed within Huron County’s history. The set and props are local textures – wooden tables, clay jugs, farming hoes – these are items that share heritage with the audience. Places discussed in this play are our soils – Birr, London, Lake Huron – we know these lands. The Wilberforce Hotel unites our local senses to a historical time period that we seldom see as connected to rural Ontario. And I have to say, seeing this play during a week where the American confederate flag was under scrutiny made me realize that no time or place is immune to political seasons, not even Huron County in the 1800s.

Playwriter Sean Dixon and Director Philip Akin excel in their work by bringing the autobiographical tale of Austin Steward to the stage to make this historical story accessible and relevant to local audiences. The characters of this play are identifiable yet complex. I image several couples went home from the play with different perspectives on the characters and stayed up late discussing them.

Austin Steward is the play’s moral compass, whose unwavering values can be frustrating at times. His wife, Milly, the only female character, is a strong woman whose love for her husband does not blind her to his flaws. For me as a woman and a partner, I felt Milly’s pain as she stood by her husband knowing she would draw a line in the sand at some point. Austin is a man whose struggles with purpose and pressures and is committed to faith and family. He’s so good that he simply can’t see the bad in others. The other major characters are easy to identify with too. Henry Hill, the wet blanket who doesn’t understand how he gets in or out of tense situations, and Robert Cole, a man of “leisure and corruption” whose hotel high jinx and brushes with the law would probably tire out any horse or woman he came across. Austin’s goodness is matched up against a fraud by the name of Israel Lewis, a toothy-grinning narcissist who dresses himself in popular fashion and politics. The actors should be commended for their ability to stay true to the many accents they take on during the show. At no point did a cartoon impersonation come out as they transitioned smoothly between Southern and European speech of that time period. Strong actors have the ability to show their characters’ nature and reflections beyond the script and this cast brings body to the characters’ words. A puffing of the chest, a toiling back, a memory flickers on someone’s face… you feel as if you are sitting at a table at the Wilberforce Hotel pretending not to be listening to the men.

The audience laughed alongside Milly and men’s banter, and grew silent during darker speeches. The standing ovation at the end was well deserved. As soon as I got home I did Internet searches on the Wilberforce Colony, as I just needed to know and understand more about this piece of local history.

The Wilberforce Hotel will definitely entertain you. This play lingers with you in the corner of your mind for days afterwards, as you slowly realize that those familiar textures and lands hold stories that haven’t been given breath yet. If you open yourself up to truths that lie between histories and art this play will, to paraphrase Austin Steward, show us to ourselves.


 

The Wilberforce Hotel runs until Aug. 8.

Blyth Festival Box Office

Location: 423 Queen St., Blyth

Phone: 519-523-9600

Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on show nights)

Website: www.blythfestival.com

Tickets: Adults: regular $30, preferred $34; Preview: regular $22, preferred $26; Youth: regular $15, preferred $15.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “The Wilberforce Hotel: History made relevant, accessible in world premiere”

  1. Liz Dadson, editor, Kincardine Record July 13, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    That local hamlet you refer to is “Birr” not “Burr”. I went to this play and did not come away with such a high-brow opinion. I enjoyed it but it certainly did not linger nor did it require further discussion. It was entertaining … period.

    • heatherboa July 13, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks, Liz. The correction has been made. Keep up the great work with your online community paper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: