There are a few certainties when it comes to a Canadian book as beloved as Ann-Marie MacDonald’s epic Fall On Your Knees.
- It will probably get adapted into a new medium like film or theatre. (See also: Room, Fifteen Dogs, The Incident Report, et cetera, et cetera.)
- When said book is inevitably adapted, reactions will be mixed.
- Even in the face of those mixed reactions, if the book is any good, its strengths will prevail, supercharging a new cultural awareness of and reverence for the original story.
Such is the case with the enormous, two-part undertaking that is Fall On Your Knees, brought to life by Canadian Stage, the National Arts Centre, Neptune Theatre, the Grand Theatre, and Vita Brevis Arts. The numbers on the project are staggering: a four-city tour, a six-hour total runtime, a ten-year (if not more) development period. Given its size, Fall On Your Knees is one of the most significant endeavours of Canadian theatre history, particularly due to its two-night heft. That sort of grand, sweeping theatre doesn’t happen much here, and it’s heartening to experience a capital-E Event post-pandemic.
It’s a big undertaking for a big book: Dostoyevskian in emotional and geographical scope, Fall On Your Knees follows the Piper family from the cliffs of Nova Scotia to the boroughs of New York in the early twentieth century. There’s James, the Gaelic, hotheaded patriarch (Tim Campbell); Materia, his Lebanese child bride (Cara Rebecca); Kathleen, their eldest daughter and gifted songbird (Samantha Hill); Mercedes, the sensible middle child (Jenny L. Wright); Frances, the youngest, goofiest sister (Deborah Hay); and Lily, the baby of the family, of dubious parentage and limited physical ability due to polio (Eva Foote). Tragedy mars the Piper family, sparing not even its most vulnerable members.
Playwright Hannah Moscovitch and director Alisa Palmer’s adaptation of the sprawling tale succeeds on a number of levels. Much of the beauty of MacDonald’s text has been preserved, including Frances’ hilarious, childish antics, which provide some levity to the crushingly sad mythology of the Piper family. So too has survived the romance between Kathleen and her first true love — theirs is one of the lighter, more deeply felt relationships onstage, along with the sisterhood between Frances and Mercedes. As well, MacDonald’s portrayal of complex, paradoxical love has endured the journey from page to stage: even when we see James’ most evil, unforgivable acts in real time, we also bear witness to the complex feelings which can haunt survivors of domestic violence.
It’s perhaps there that the complications of staging Fall On Your Knees become impossible to ignore. This is a violent, frequently ugly story, and Palmer (along with fight and sexual choreographer Anita Nittoly) hasn’t shied away from that in her direction. We see heads smashed into pianos, open-palmed slaps, forceful shoves across the stage. The physical violence of MacDonald’s prose is represented literally onstage, along with numerous instances of sexual violence and molestation. Bluntly, the short content warnings posted outside the theatre and online felt insufficient for me in light of just how prevalent physical abuse is in this staging. The violence onstage is jarringly real and meticulously staged to preserve the illusion of pain; though skillfully executed, it’s difficult to watch.
In the lighter portions of the play (admittedly, there aren’t many of them), Palmer’s cast soars. The brilliant Amaka Umeh is woefully underused as Rose in the first half, as is Rebecca as Materia in the second. Fall On Your Knees is so much about memory — and its ability to distort, calcify, and romanticize — that the exclusion of these two vital characters in the two separate parts feels like a missed opportunity to complement and even elevate the themes of MacDonald’s book. Hill is a natural Kathleen, the closest we get to connective tissue between the two parts — a former Cosette and Christine Daaé, her luminous soprano voice is consistently strong — and the wonderful Diane Flacks, too, seems underused as the revolving carousel of mother figures who step in to mentor the Piper women at different times.
Campbell has the unenviable job of bringing grace to the tortured James Piper, and what’s remarkable is how much he succeeds in this task. James has demons who lash out at the people around him, often to a point of irredeemability — but Campbell fully commits to James’ contrition and immobilizing guilt, bringing to the stage the layers of complexity needed to make James at all watchable.
Hay as Frances and Wright as Mercedes are often at the forefront of Fall On Your Knees, a dynamic duo who must embody every age from birth until death. Their chemistry as sisters is both authentic and fragile, seemingly ripped from the pages of MacDonald’s book. Hay is a believable (and damn funny) little girl, and Wright smartly plays Mercedes’ no-nonsense note right the way through her adulthood. For much of the story, Hay is our narrator, the lens through which we begin to understand the generational trauma of the Piper family. Though at times held captive by the necessity of a little-girl voice, she commands the stage and artfully moulds the play to fit young Frances’ worldview. Hers is among the most thrilling of the performances in Fall On Your Knees.
For me, this Fall On Your Knees is an okay, but inconsistent adaptation of MacDonald’s story. Moscovitch’s humour and verve come up to the surface only occasionally, and it feels as if preservation of MacDonald’s plot has taken precedence over theatricality and style. Much of what makes the book so striking is the dichotomy between the echoing Cape Breton cliffs and the bustling New York city streets, and in Camellia Koo’s set design, those aesthetic poles have been traded in for stark modern lines and mismatched antique chairs, an odd choice against the rest of Palmer’s quite literal staging. The decision not to cast a disabled actor, too, in the role of Lily, feels at odds with otherwise lovely casting.
As well, music in this world is one of the most beautiful hallmarks of the novel — MacDonald’s words seem to sing on the page — and some of that magic feels lost here. There is lots of music, and in the second part we’re treated to a number of robust, ably sung jazz numbers (kudos especially to Janelle Cooper), but it feels as if a musical throughline might be missing. I certainly felt the absence of original musical composition in such a music-driven story.
It’s not a perfect theatricalization, but here’s the thing: Fall On Your Knees is nearly adaptation-proof. Even when the journey to the stage seems muddled or heavy-handed, the story cuts through fluff, hopefully encouraging a new group of audience members to give the original book a read. This staging of Fall On Your Knees is likely to be a first exposure to MacDonald’s writing for many, and those left feeling curious after this production are advised to read the timeless, uniquely affecting book. Some stories might ring truest when left to the imagination.
Fall On Your Knees runs in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre through February 4. Tickets are available here.
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