OSLT's West Moon tackles a serious issue with humour and wit

The cast of West Moon at the Roxy Theatre on Monday, February 3, 2020 in Owen Sound, Ont. The Owen Sound Little Theatre production runs Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 12-15. Rob Gowan/The Owen Sound Sun Times/Postmedia Network Rob Gowan / Rob Gowan/Sun Times

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Kathleen Cassidy saw the play West Moon while in Newfoundland in 2018. Then over the next few weeks as she toured the province, she saw firsthand the effects the resettlement of small fishing villages had on the people there.

Cassidy said resettlement, which continues to this day on the East Coast, seemed to be on everyone’s minds. She did a lot of hiking while there, and would venture to the abandoned villages themselves. They would feature plaques and pictures of what those villages looked like before everyone left for larger centres. And it was in the music too.

It is something that has stuck with her and a big reason why she wanted to bring the play to the Roxy stage.

“I got home and I just really wanted to do the play,” Cassidy said recently.

Cassidy got her wish and Owen Sound Little Theatre’s production of Al Pittman’s West Moon opens at the Roxy on Thursday and runs Feb. 6-8 and 12-15.

Written by Pittman, the well-know poet and playwright, West Moon is set in Newfoundland in the 1960s after many of the small coastline villages had been resettled to larger centres because of the demise of the traditional salt cod fishery. The people were moved so they would have better access to government services like health care, schools, post offices and electricity.

The play takes place in one of those villages. The characters are residents who are dead and buried, but are given the ability to think, feel, remember and speak once a year on All Soul’s Night. From talking to the newly dead, the older generations discover that no one else remains, as the dark stories of resettlement emerge amidst the usual gossip of small-town life.

“On All Soul’s Night they are able to find their thoughts and feelings and they can share those with each,” said Cassidy, director of the play. “They don’t have bodies anymore — they are rotted — so they don’t see each other, and the image you are seeing is the image they have of themselves when they were alive.”

Cassidy said the play is a challenge for the actors because they don’t have actions to connect to their lines and they don’t look at each other to feed off of each other.

A mostly veteran group of Owen Sound Little Theatre actors has been called upon to pull it off and they have risen to the challenge, Cassidy said.

They include Rick Ringer as Jack, Jamie Smith as Ray, Dan Herrick as Bill, Eileen O’Connor as Rose, Sandra LeMaitre as Maggie, Paul Welch as Ned, Paula Mercer as Bride and Cathie Tilley as Tish.

Fiona Smith plays the part of “The Voice,” a Mother Earth-like narrator.

“She is the poet,” said Cassidy. “She is the one who sets the tone, sets the mood, sets the place.”

New to the OSLT stage is young Maiya Burgess, who plays the part of 10-year-old Sheila in the play.

“It is a wonderful cast who have really created a community amongst themselves,” said Cassidy. “Their connections are very strong and they are all very invested in the story.”

Cassidy said they spent a lot of time working on the Newfoundland accent, and she was lucky enough to have a Newfoundlander at her disposal in Bill Langdon, who actually ended up becoming part of the cast, playing the part of Aaron.

Langdon, who just moved to the area in the spring and is a marine engineer at Georgian College, was leaned on, along with his partner and a co-worker who is also from Newfoundland.

“They helped us with the accents right at the beginning,” said Cassidy. “Then we had an actor withdraw and there was Bill right there. He has never been on stage before and he is doing a great job.”

For Cassidy, directing the play has taken her outside her usual comfort zone in that in the past she has stuck to musicals or plays that include dozens of scene changes and a multitude of costumes.

“That is what I have always enjoyed is all that, but this is a play that is more about people,” said Cassidy.

When she picked up the script and started reading it, Cassidy said she fell in love with Pittman’s writing

“He was writing from his own experiences,” she said. “His family was from a small coastal village right near all the towns that are mentioned in this play. This fictitious village was where he grew up and he was writing from the heart.”

Some of the cast of West Moon at the Roxy Theatre, from left, Maiya Burgess as Sheila, Jamie Smith as Ray, Bill Langdon as Aaron and Rick Ringer as Jack, on Monday, February 3, 2020 in Owen Sound, Ont. The Owen Sound Little Theatre production runs Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 12-15. Rob Gowan/The Owen Sound Sun Times/Postmedia Network Rob Gowan / Rob Gowan/Sun Times

Cassidy said she was touched by the language and the depth of the characters.

“The script never let me down,” she said. “No matter how far we delved into these people and their relationships with each other and their feelings and connections, it always rang true. You never felt he was just giving us some stereotypes.”

While the type of play is new for Cassidy, she has some familiar faces alongside her with Jane Phillips in the role of producer and Karen Twining the stage manager.

“This will be our fourth play together, the three of us,” she said.

Set designers Paul Nicholson and Terry Burns and their crew have constructed a set that mirrors Newfoundland’s rocky coastline.

Cassidy said she wanted it to look like Newfoundland and the crew have definitely achieved that vision.

Bill Murphy is leading the lighting team, while Gord McConachie-Anderson has put together a soundtrack for the show, including seagulls, waves lapping, fiddle tunes and church music. Wendy Smart is on make-up, Kasey Williams is on hair, while Jean Murphy has been busy with wardrobe and prompting.

And each night, the lobby band, known as The Maggoty Fish, will be playing for visitors.

“We are having a kitchen party in the lobby every night and I do believe there will be screech at the bar,” she said. “They will play starting at 7 o’clock every night, the bar will be open, and they will be playing at intermission.”

Cassidy said the play hasn’t been performed much outside Newfoundland where it was first performed in 1980 – it did a tour around Ireland in 2000 – so many who come to see it may not be familiar with it.

But she feels it will resonate with many who decide to take in a showing at the Roxy over the next few weeks.

“I think it is a worldwide story, definitely a Canadian story,” said Cassidy. “There are lots of small towns that don’t survive. I think we see that happening all over the world.”

She feels the play will appeal to everyone.

“It is everyone’s history in some way or another,” said Cassidy. “It is a good history lesson, although I don’t want anyone to think it is boring, but it is part of our Canadian story, written by a very well-known Canadian Newfoundlander.”

The cast of West Moon at the Roxy Theatre on Monday, February 3, 2020 in Owen Sound, Ont. The Owen Sound Little Theatre production runs Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 12-15. Rob Gowan/The Owen Sound Sun Times/Postmedia Network Rob Gowan / Rob Gowan/Sun Times

And Cassidy said that despite the serious subject of the play, it is not one people are going to sob through.

“There is lots of laughter and lots of joy. It is wonderful to see how they learn what has happened and then they buck up and keep going,” she said.

“They are Newfoundlanders. They are an open, caring people.”

Doors open for West Moon each night at 7 p.m., with the play set to begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and $15 for students. They are available online at roxytheatre.ca, by calling 519-371-2833 or by visiting the Roxy at 251 9th St. E., Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The play will be adjudicated by the Western Ontario Drama League.