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Leaving Wonderland a gripping tale of loss, rediscovery


 September 25, 2015

Shelley Thompson’s Leaving Wonderland is a passionate, powerful new play about a middle-aged woman’s journey through grief to hope.

Inspired by Canada-wide stories of student deaths due to alcohol poisoning, Thompson opens her play with a scene that has played out in many a university town in Nova Scotia.

Jane confronts two drunken university students near her home; they barrage her with foul language and toss beer cans.


This is just the start to a complex, painful and gripping story that rings true and has a wonderful depth.

Thompson sends her audience down a rabbit hole into tormented lives at a small-town university that is not specific to Nova Scotia but inspired by her life in Wolfville and Antigonish. The natural refuge Jane seeks recalls Antigonish Landing.

Jane, in a tour-de-force performance by Genevieve Steele, is an English literature professor and award-winning author frozen by the death two years previously of her only son who drank a 40 of whisky during Frosh Week.

This cold, cynical and entertainingly harsh character is angry at her husband, edgy with her best friend Carla, who is also a university vice-president, and icy to her students. Steele always keeps the pain just below the surface so Jane is never one note and the audience feels her sorrow like a constant pinprick.

As the school year restarts she gets a new student, an awkward, intense young man who has read all Jane’s work and wants to be a writer. Rob, played with a marvellous physicality and wounded heart by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski, slowly reawakens Jane. However, he is torn between academic life and loyalty to his carousing rugby friends.

Leaving Wonderland is a good story with a lot of threads and twists and a welcome density of detail, as well as poetry with themes of the disappearing self, dealing with grief, selflessly navigating love and finding ways to forgive.

Director Martha Irving, her hand steady on pace and emotional rhythms, has a wonderful cast, with Mary-Colin Chisholm providing welcome comic relief as Carla, a brisk professional woman whose love for Jane is perhaps undermining her, and Hugh Thompson in a difficult, well-inflected role as Jane’s bruised but imperfect husband. Scott Baker is realistic as Rob’s corrosive best friend who knows all the secrets and will do anything to save himself.

Filmic in structure, Leaving Wonderland races along in 25 scenes directed by Irving, enabled by Carolena Charles’s set design of many wheeled, white screens recalling Japanese paper houses.

In a rapid choregraphy the actors spin the screens with opening panels for windows and doors. A beautiful, atmospheric and intelligent design of lights and projections by Johnny Cann turns these screens into a busy restaurant, the quiet woods at the “magic hour” and multiple interior spaces. There is a repeating orange sunball that pierces the characters and offers a promise of inner peace.

Also key to this production is an effective soundscape by Donny Walls and Emlyn Murray’s costume design with its subtle transition for Jane’s clothes representing her journey.

Leaving Wonderland runs an hour and 45 minutes without intermission. “I hope you have empty bladders,” Irving said at the show’s start.

However, this drama transports its audience and moves along quickly like a good movie, not surprisingly since Thompson is now a Canadian Film Centre student writing this story as a screenplay she hopes to shoot in Nova Scotia.

Catch Leaving Wonderland on stage, though, since that makes the pain and emotion stronger and with this particular design the story is a wonderful, imaginative, visually evocative journey.

Leaving Wonderland, in its immediacy to a Nova Scotia reality, recalls Catherine Banks’ Bone Cage as well as — in Thompson’s use of poetry and reference to a middle-aged woman— It Is Solved by Walking, also by Banks.

In its immediacy and direct link to current events, it recalls Floyd Kane’s new film, Undone, inspired by race riots at Cole Harbour High School.

It’s exciting to see deep, real, complex and true stories leaping out of this province onto the stage and screen.

Leaving Wonderland, a LunaSea Theatre production, runs to Oct. 4 at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For complete show times and tickets go to the Neptune theatre box office at 902-429-7070 or 1-800-565-7345 or online at under “visiting shows.”

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Director Mauralea Austin wanted really nice actors to star in a play about brutality.

She chose Martha Irving and Stewart Legere to tackle Canadian playwright Colleen Wagner’s 1996 Governor General’s Award-winning play, The Monument, opening Wednesday at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax.

“They’re two fundamentally beautiful, wonderful loving people,” Austin says of her Halifax actors, “and it’s good to have that at the core as we explore the really dark side, which is in all of us.”
Legere plays a solider convicted of war crimes, specifically of rape and murder. He is saved from execution by Irving’s rage-filled woman who is desperate for answers.

“It terrified me,” says Irving. “That’s one of my criteria for accepting things. If they terrify me, it’s worth doing.”

Austin chose this play. “Colleen wrote it as a passionate response to the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s. It poured out of her like a cri de coeur. It can be applied to many other conflicts and many other wars.”

It has been performed around the world, notably in Rwanda. “They did it as written, with black actors, and it resonated amazingly with them,” says Irving.

Austin wants people in the audience to have “strong responses.”
“It’s important for all of us to have an emotional sense of what’s going on in the world. It’s not sanitized and safe. For one hour and 15 minutes you’re living in this world.

“For me it’s very important because it connects me to the wider world. I have to see myself in context with bigger issues,” says Austin, who reads the paper every day. “It makes me feel part of the human race. And I hate complacency.”

Irving says she feels “humbled” playing this part.

“Mejra is a woman who gives him the choice of dying in the electric chair or coming with her, and their dynamic is embattled and reveals the depths of both characters and what brought them to this situation.

“It’s a very uncomfortable piece to do — to explore what hatred does to us as human beings, how it twists us into something unrecognizable.”

Stewart Legere plays Stetko. “The thing that scares me is not playing a bad person but playing a person who’s done bad things and how can that be real and not a caricature,” he says.

“You rarely see shows like this. We’re not used to talking about really horrific things. We are gentle with each other. To do a show that says pretty horrific things is exciting.”
Austin, who has a son, says the play spoke to her through both characters.

“I find my heart is being pulled into the woman’s world and into the young man’s world and that’s such a powerful way to tell a story.

“The way the play is written helps in that you know what Stetko has done is bad and we accept (that) this kind of evil happens, but as the play unfolds we see why it happens, how it happens and there are no easy answers like good and bad, heroes and villains. There’s a lot of humanity in this.”
She brought in Karen Bassett as fight director.

“We want the violence to have a real edge and a sense of danger but we don’t want it to take an audience out of the story. For us it is important that the violence be visceral for an audience and that’s a really tough balance.”

LunaSea Theatre is producing this play for seven performances on a “shoestring,” with only a 12-day rehearsal process and lots of help from friends and family. Three recording students at Centre for Arts and Technology — Justin Petersen, Ben Schow and Cameron Laurence — are doing the sound.

LunaSea co-founder Mary-Colin Chisholm’s daughter, Emlyn Murray, is doing the costumes and Chisholm has been dropping off cookies to rehearsal.

“My son is recording the pre-show music,” says Austin. “Yeah, we use and abuse our family.”

All the hard work to produce edgy theatre is worth it if just one person responds, says Irving, recalling an enthusiastic email sent by a Sheet Harbour woman after she saw LunaSea’s production of the black Irish comedy Woman and Scarecrow.

“This is for people who like to go to theatre to be moved by it.”

LunaSea Theatre presents The Monument, Canadian playwright Colleen Wagner’s response to war crimes in Bosnia, at the Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen St., Halifax. The Governor General’s Award-winning play examines the repercussions of violence when a young soldier convicted of war crimes is saved from execution by a rage-filled woman desperate for answers.

STARRING: Stewart Legere and Martha Irving.

CREATIVE TEAM: director Mauralea Austin, set and lighting designer Evan Brown, costume designer Emlyn Murray, props designer Wes Daniels, fight director Karen Bassett and stage manager Sylvia Bell.

SHOW TIMES: Wednesday to Sunday, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $15 for students, seniors and arts workers but $25 opening night. Call 423-8202 or go online (

A talk-back session is held after Friday’s performance. Pay-what-you-can show is Saturday, 8 p.m.