I’ve been a Chris Coculuzzi fan since seeing him play the lead in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning at the Alumnae Theatre almost four years ago. I know he’s not only a talented actor but a local high school teacher who genuinely cares about his students and has a passion for education and great theatre (I know this because I am a creep and I follow him on Facebook). Quiet Courage, Coculuzzi’s play adaptation from the book Too Many to Mourn by James and Rowena Mahar is just that – a combination of education and great theatre. There has been quite a buzz about this play all year and I knew if anyone could make history interesting it’s Coculuzzi.
Director, Mary Dwyer really orchestrated this story beautifully. I will admit because there are so many characters in the play and actors playing multiple roles, I became slightly confused but in community theatre actors playing more than one role is common and with a storyline as intricate as this, it really is amazing that it was executed to be as straightforward and easy to understand as this play was.
I will admit, the juvenile in me coupled with lack of knowledge in regards to the December 6, 1917, Halifax Explosion meant I was half expecting a grandiose display of pyrotechnics and special effects when I walked into the theatre. This was not done which is a good thing. Instead, the first half of the play focused on intimately getting to know the members of the large (but commonly large for that time period) Jackson Family. There’s an eerie sense of dread throughout the first half because as we grow attached to this loving family, their hopes and dreams, the career and marriage plans of their offspring, we know what’s coming soon and one starts to wonder who is going to make it out of this alive. It sounds awful, but I actually started rooting for certain characters to make it through the blast. Of course, these people aren’t just characters. Although this storyline itself is a work of fiction, the Jackson Family was very real and they lost 48 family members in the disaster. The mother of James Mahar, the co-author of Too Many to Mourn, was a Jackson family member herself who lost not only her husband but also ten children. I can’t imagine how it must have felt for James growing up knowing he had an entire family full of siblings he was never a part of. I can’t imagine his mother having to compartmentalize and separate from her first “life” with her first husband, with whom she watched her children grow and start to form their own lives and then have to start completely over again with a “new family”. After the blast, the remaining members of this tightknit family were separated and scattered throughout North America only reuniting in 2015.
Outside of the Jackson Family’s storyline, Quiet Courage also meticulously details, in an interesting way, the events leading up to the explosion which was caused by the collision of the SS. Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying explosives and a Norwegian vessel, the SS. Imo while attempting to simultaneously enter and exit the Bedford Basin of the Halifax Harbour. Stephen Flett (Cyrano, Moonlight and Magnolias) and Thomas O’Neill (Tartuffe, Office Hours) did an excellent job playing the opposing ship captains and I really felt I walked away with a decent understanding of what was an extremely confusing scenario.
The second half of the play dealt with the immediate aftermath of the explosion. This is where one might draw a comparison to Come From Away, the historical musical by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff chronicling the grounding of 38 planes and subsequent stranding of 7000 people in the town of Gander, Newfoundland after the events of 9/11. Although heartbreaking, the second half of Quiet Courage shows the resilience and compassion of the survivors, especially woman. Roxanne Deans (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Renée Cullen’s (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) performances stood out as two surviving sisters. Although very different in terms of traditional values and religion, their strength and determination are what made them the same. Riley Anne (Sense and Sensibility) was especially memorable as Sophye, a Jackson family niece and recently graduated nurse who put duty and caring for the sick above her own personal happiness. The Aquarius sisters, Cabiria and Paisley along with Duncan Bailey took on several roles as “the children” and all did a fantastic job, especially Duncan, who at such a young age was able to portray 3 major characters adorably.
Yes, this is a historical drama – but boring it certainly isn’t. The only loose knowledge I had of this incident at all before preparing to see Quiet Courage came from a brief Heritage Minute video which I’ve seen played on TV for at least half my life. I don’t know if any changes have been made in Ontario’s public education system since I graduated from high school in the late 90’s, but as of the time I finished school, the Halifax Explosion had not been part of the curriculum. This is a play you might have to “force” your children to attend, but they will leave having been educated and entertained.
Too Many to Mourn: One Family’s Tragedy in the Halifax Explosion by James and Rowena Mahar can be purchased on Amazon.
Details: Quiet Courage runs November 9th – 25th, Thursday to Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $25 regular, $20 seniors, and $15 students. Tickets may be purchased online at www.amicustickets.ca or by phone at 416-860-6176.