When the 1921 “Marsh Hay” was performed for the first time in 1974, one critic remarked that the stark depiction of turn-of-the-century poverty in Northern Ontario, Canada, would make uncomfortable anyone concerned about economic uncertainties in the seventies. Two decades later those concerns are full-blown realities, and Merrill Denison’s play rings eerily familiar to anyone following the daily headlines.
A family is miserably trying to pull a living from fifty acres of gray stone with “not enough marsh hay worth the haulin’ ” (a fact repeated rhythmically like a forlorn mantra by John, the head of the household and father of four, including two teenage girls with raging hormones and few prospects). His is the kind of stubborn loyalty and unquenchable hope that keeps generations of farmers rooted to their barren soil. The story is all too universal.
Shaw Festival director Neil Munro has tapped into that rhythm and uses it like a baton to choreograph overlapping dialogue, forceful physical action and sudden, unexpected silences; in so doing he has layered a contemporary urgency onto the piece that almost, but not quite, eradicates its melodramatic undertones.
Still, like the better plays of the era, “Marsh Hay” also has a poetic soul that mirrors Canada’s early symphonic theater movement. Nature is mated to man in a tense, bare-teethed dance of survival, forming a desperate partnership between beauty and faith, ugliness and despair.
In this brooding environment, a fruit bowl momentarily appears to breathe life into the sparse, gray furniture, and, just briefly, the colorless, convent-like clothes of the women give way to a splash of color and almost, but never quite, style. When hope is quashed, so is nature, and everything inside the dilapidated farmhouse and out reverts to dusky, heavy shadows. If this were a British play, it might have been penned by the Brontes.
But this is Canada, with its own peculiar bleakness and Victorian codes, a combination which gives way to so black an ending that only the Shaw’s Christopher Newton and Munro would be brave enough to toss it into a season largely dependent on tourists.
The cast works well as an ensemble, although the balance of power between John (a gruff but not particularly threatening performance by Michael Ball) and his wife Lena (played with terrier-like grit by West Coast actor Corinne Koslo) does not always hold, occasionally robbing the piece of its necessary central tension.
On the whole, though, this harsh, uncompromising script is given the harsh, uncompromising production it needs.