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Gil Garratt as Robert Donnelly in The Last Donnelly Standing at the Blyth Festival. Photo by Terry Manzo.

By Guest Diva Marilyn Swartz

BLYTH – At the Aug. 5 opening of The Last Donnelly Standing at Blyth Festival, Gil Garratt, who primarily played Robert Donnelly, came riding up to the theatre on a horse.  Such a dramatic entrance fit the bill of this thought-provoking and highly emotional play that gave a different perspective than the regular stories I was often told or read about the Donnellys.

Most children growing up in Southern Ontario have heard the story of the Black Donnellys. A rough, tough, farm family with a stagecoach sideline, who were murdered by a gang of vigilantes from the nearby village of Lucan. This massacre took place late at night in February of 1880. A large group of men broke into the home, butchering the inhabitants and setting the home on fire. A young neighbour boy who was spending the night escaped to tell the tale. The murderous mob continued on to another Donnelly farm and shot one of his brothers who had answered the door. This is a tale Huron County has never forgotten.

If you are hoping to see a play that makes sense of the Donnelly story, or even perhaps for a play that romanticizes the horrors of that late February evening, you won’t find it in Blyth. Through Gil’s emotionally riveting solo performance of a multi-character play, the audience follows the emotional roller coaster of Robert Donnelly’s life, before, during and after the massacre of his family. Robert was one of the middle sons, and he is portrayed as a straight-thinking man with a fiery temper and a gift for making money. The play’s climax is not the massacre as many in the audience would likely expect, instead it explored the odd draw that Lucan held for Robert even after the massacre of his family. Instead of moving away after the murders like his surviving siblings, he seemed determined to make the town face him, waving and smiling to the families of those who murdered his kin.

A great illustration is used throughout the play and is introduced by Robert’s brother Patrick (also played by Gil). Patrick explains an Irish custom of young boys going into the woods in the early spring to kill wrens and the odd custom of bringing them back on sticks. The young boys receive treats and money to bury the wrens, which in turn is supposed to bring in the robins and spring. Patrick closes on this riveting and disturbing tradition by pointing out that Robert could never bury the wren. This theme seems carried on through to the end and the audience is left feeling badly for Robert as a man who could not forget or forgive the past.

Written by Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt with co-creator Beth Kates, and directed by Paul Thomson, Gil carries it off with style, including his riding to the theatre on a horse before the play begins.

A special mention should also be made of the unusual but effective projected visual effects, as it helped Gil cast a dreamlike, and at times nightmarish, atmosphere.

A nice treat was to experience Blyth Theatre’s commitment to the local economy, which was evident during the intermission and afterwards, as local seasonal foods were prepared by Central Huron’s Bon Vivant Catering. At the bar, Lucan’s Black Donnelly Ales & Lagers could be purchased alongside Blyth’s Cowbell craft beer and various wines from Huron East’s Maelstrom Wineries. It was truly a night to remember, which is good because we could all use a reminder to bury the wren from time to time.

The Last Donnelly Standing plays in repertoire at Blyth Festival until Sept. 2. Tickets (Adults: $31 regular, $35 preferred; youth: $15. All orders subject to $6 handling charge) are available by calling the box office at 519-523-9300 or toll free at 1-877-862-5984 or online.