It is easy to create spectacle if there is money involved - big sets, props, a cast of thousands - but Theatre Smith-Gilmour takes a bare stage, precise lighting and sound effects, and a talented ensemble to conjure an epic out of thin air. Take Me Back to Jefferson takes William Faulkner's classic novel As I Lay Dying, and transmutes it into theatrical gold. It is as if they have a direct line to the audience's imagination and can project those emotions and visuals onto the stage. Imax and huge LED screens may transport an audience to foreign worlds and make them vivid, Take Me Back to Jefferson brings them to life, a fourth dimension that can only be created by theatrical magic.
To create a flood, a barn fire, a flock of lurking buzzards and horseback riders onstage would take a massive budget and a lot of space; to create them in our minds just takes a lot of talent, rehearsal and planning. The light and sound cues are meticulous and the cast never misses a mark. To emote effectively and still achieve so much accuracy is a skill in itself, and that is the only flaw in Take Me Back to Jefferson: occasionally I was so dazzled at how an image, a powerful illusion, was created, that I stepped out of the story to marvel and admire the artistry.
The plot, like the book, meanders into the minds of the characters and the quest to get mother Addie's body to Jefferson for burial before she rots further, is just an excuse to explore themes of greed, guilt, family and the human condition. There are no conclusions or neat summations to let us know how to think, but we join these journeyers every step of the way. We feel the pain of Dan Watson's Cash when his leg is broken; Daniel Roberts shares his joy at catching a big fish and his utter despair when his mother's corpse is desecrated; we can smell the deterioration of Michelle Smith's Addie (she is the liveliest corpse this side of a zombie); we panic with Nina Gilmour as her Dewy Dell struggles in a sub-plot secret all her own: and when Julian De Zotti (Of Fortune and Men's Eyes) tears off his shirt to fight the flames, we feel the heat and begin to sweat and squirm.
This is clowning - secondary characters wear a variation of the traditional red nose - of the highest order. There are laughs - Ben Muir as the horse riding Jewel is outstanding - but the struggle of this family is far from comic, and we have been seduced, unlike white trash objects of comic scorn like Honey Boo Boo, into identifying and suffering along with them. The final moments, which are a triumph for only Dean Gilmour's father Anse, evoke a complicated surge of joy for him and horror for the betrayal of the rest. It may be an epic canvas but the emotions are raw and pierce the heart.
Take Me Back to Jefferson has a short run before it is slated to be honoured as a Canadian treasure at the National Arts Centre, this is a rare opportunity to enjoy a massively intimate spectacle in an intimate space. Not to be missed. Photos by Katherine Fleitas
Take Me Back to Jefferson runs until Sun, Nov 23 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca