Outstanding Performances Fuel the Flames that Lead Vigilante to Heat Up the Spriet Stage
The old adage states that there are three sides to every story — yours, mine, and the truth, which lies somewhere in between. Vigilante presents the story of the Donnellys — long vilified and infamous in this part of the county — from their perspective. Instead of being maligned, this version of the Donnelly family is largely misunderstood. And their story is presented in a near-perfect rock-opera style production that is perfectly paced, tight, and filled with superlative performances.
In Vigilante, the Donnellys don’t profess to be innocent. But it wasn’t the devil that made them do “it” — it was merely historical rivalries, religious fervour, and discrimination by an old guard that refused to let them live their lives in the way they want — peacefully, simply, and left to their own devices.
This version of the Donnellys is led by patriarch James Donnelly (David Leyshon) and his wife Johannah (Jan Alexandra Smith), who fall in love and marry in Ireland despite being from opposite sides of a religion-based schism. Johannah came from a line of “Whiteboys” and James was a “Blackfoot” — refusing to swear allegiance to the Whiteboy way of life. The Whiteboys used violence and intimidate to enforce their desire for religious purity, causing James and Johannah to start a new life in the New World with the hope of leaving behind those old ways to create a better life for them and their children. Unfortunately, leaving the past behind is not that simple and these historical biases form the foundation upon which the Donnelly conflict is built.
The play is masterfully broken up into two distinct parts. The first act is a slower build, exposing the audience to the idealistic nature of James Donnelly and the hopes and dreams that he and his wife share. Their simple desires and purity of hope stand in stark contrast to the initial description of the clan — particularly Johannah, who is described as being filled with such hate and evil that she burns better en route to Hell. We are introduced to a loving, tight-knit family featuring six boys who eschew tribalism and prefer to work with all, regardless of faith and background. James’ desire to find a new way is soon tested by the ghosts of his past.
The second half of the play is a study in contrasts. Hope gives way to obstinance; pacifism turns to aggression, and loves lost fuel hatred, anger, and revenge. And it’s emotionally wrenching and incredibly powerful theatre.
Leading the charge is Jan Alexandra Smith who is masterful in her role as Johannah. The cast, as a whole, are incredible at using their body to portray different characters — often within the same scene — in a way that’s immediately recognizable, believable, and does not confuse or distract from the play. But Smith’s physical transformation in the second act is spectacular. She contorts her body and embodies hatred and anger; she howls in agony and crumples in sadness, only to steel herself and display a primal, guttural sense of anger, just through her movement.
The production, as a whole, is a physical masterpiece. The choreography is immaculate. Sometimes musicals can devolve into camp or choreography can betray the nature of the characters. Not so in Vigilante. The choreography, especially of the Donnelly sons, is aligned to their rough-and-tumble nature. It is jolie-laide in nature, which is perfect for the characters — beautiful in its ugliness. And frequent call-backs to previous choreography help bring the play full circle, best evidenced by the physical interpretation of fire.
There are wonderfully subtle moments of humour throughout, particularly between Will (Carson Nattrass) and Michael (Benjamin Wardle). Nattrass serves as the production’s primary narrator and brings the right mix of gravitas and levity to the story.
The music is well done. The band is note-perfect and well integrated into the stage. The songs serve to drive forward the narrative and there is not one that feels out of place. The stage is simple, but effective — wooden steps, ramps, and beams used to frame the action on the stage. The lighting is relatively minimal but is used to great effect, especially during scenes involving fire. And the costumes are a joy to behold. There’s a sense of timelessness about the layered outfits that feels both period-appropriate and contemporary. They fit the rock vibe and add to the Donnelly brothers’ sense of rugged cool.
At its heart, Vigilante is a love story about revenge. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse its anti-heroes, but provides context that can help explain their motivations. And it’s a story that makes you care about a group of people that, historically, have not been looked upon kindly. We don’t know the whole story of the real Donnellys, and it is in the void created by the gaps in our knowledge that this incredible production is allowed to grow.
Vigilante is a story with particular resonance in this area, simply due to the proximity of this infamous story. But it’s a story that stands on its own, buoyed by a series of wonderful performances and led by a tour-de-force display of singing, dancing, and character development by Smith. She alone makes the production worth seeing, but it is the overall quality of the production that makes Vigilante something that — like the Donnellys themselves — will be talked about for years to come.