Theater review: 'Tempting Providence' at the California International Theatre Festival
The first British to arrive in Newfoundland found the climate too harsh and headed south for Virginia. It took London-born nurse Myra Grimsley to conquer the region’s bleak beauty — and its stubborn inhabitants. This Florence Nightingale of Newfoundland is the subject of Robert Chafe’s spare and affecting “Tempting Providence,” staged last weekend as part of the California International Theatre Festival in Calabasas.
Myra (Deidre Gillard-Rowlings) arrives in 1921 with a medical kit and plenty of notions. But the unstoppable force meets the immovable object as she encounters fear and superstition in the hardscrabble population (played by Renee Hackett and Robert Wyatt Thorne in various roles), convinced that the best way to cure a cough is to tie a green ribbon around your neck. (Myra: “It is if you tie it tightly enough.”) Delivering a baby at a friendly house, our heroine meets dashing Angus Bennett (Darryl Avalon Hopkins), who spends the rest of the play slowly coaxing down Myra’s considerable emotional defenses.
Director Jillian Keiley’s crisp production uses only a table, four chairs and a white cloth to conjure this wild north country, and the theatricality of “Providence” lives in these simple stage pieces, deftly rearranged to become swaddled babies, bread dough, wedding dresses and sleighs. The cast wears all-white costumes by Barry Buckle. The simplicity and invention of the staging express the play’s themes of pioneer ingenuity and endurance; the production’s visual wit and deprecation feels genuine.
But a story of competence is only so dramatic, and there’s a starched restraint to the show that can give it the air of a historical reenactment, a kind of Canadian “Lost Colony” laced with the homespun wisdom of “Little House on the Prairie.” Wisely, Chafe warms the action with the love story, and Hopkins and Gillard-Rowlings underplay their attraction with charm. This is a world where emotions are subservient to weather and necessity — to a point. As Myra’s two-year medical appointment stretches into a lifetime of service to the hardworking poor, she slowly awakens to a feeling of self not found through first aid. A modest tale well told.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
Photo: Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Darryl Avalon Hopkins in "Tempting Providence." Credit: Derek Butt.