Times of Sorrow, Times of Hope and Times of Compassion Converge in Winter’s Daughter at the Segal

If there’s a cottage industry that families of all shades and stripes, in all corners of the Earth, and of all walks of life generally dabble in, it’s the business of secrets within, thought to be better left unsaid. Every unit, like every individual, generally has a story and if there’s a collective elixir that draws public interest in these times, it’s overturning the stones and piecing together the proverbial quilt that uncovers these hushed realities that so fascinate and intrigue many of us, and also allow us to learn about ourselves and consequentially, our neighbours. Winter’s Daughter is just such a narrative, touching upon some of the most difficult and dire circumstances a family can face straight on, but also speaks to the unmitigated sense of strength and resilience the heads of a family can show about its survival and the future of their legacy. These involve difficult choices, going against the grain that the zeitgeist of the times would otherwise dictate, and remembering the thing of beauty that has the capacity to beat in most of us: a compassionate heart and the gift of unconditional love that we are able to give if we choose to do so.

Tableau d’Hôte Theatre has taken a powerhouse slice of true personal history penned by National Theatre School of Canada graduate Jesse Stong (who also was manager and lead puppeteer of WatchMojo’s Children’s Programming division – for those of the Internet media-savvy crowd) and given us Winter’s Daughter. One needn’t look beyond the borders of Montreal for the source of this narrative. It is not Jesse himself, but rather celebrated Montreal barber Gino Chiarella. Chiarella wasn’t aware of it growing up, but his extended family actually and consistently lived it. His mother was a first-generation Italian immigrant to Montreal, and while she was alive, she didn’t know herself about her family’s secret. But it was Gino’s trip to Italy as a young man on his honeymoon and during time spent with his grandparents that culminated in his inheriting of a family heirloom (and family secret) that was beyond unlikely – and certainly beyond the pale of the norm. Asked to keep the family secret, Chiarella eventually told all; fifty-three years later and posthumously (in terms of his mother and grandparents) only two years ago to K. David Brody, who wrote a short story about it called The Peddlers’ Daughter. It was later developed into a full-fledged theatrical production by Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal.

The scene is postwar Italy. Post World War I Italy, to be exact. It is the story of a rural couple – Maria and Giussepe – doing their best to put food on the table for their young daughter Rosie and themselves. Giussepe is troubled by what he’d seen during the War, clearly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at a time when it was still termed “battle hypnosis” or “shell shock”. Maria is tough, dominating, full of life and love; her daughter the apple of her proverbial eye. Played with zeal by Michaela DiCesare, Maria is to be awed, admired, even feared; her passions and convictions run deep and she is a durable foe for those brave enough or naïve enough to challenge her. Ryan Bommarito brings a masterfully soft-spoken, morally immovable quality to Giussepe. He is everything to all: loyal husband, ardent worker, doting father, pillar of a friend. Writing of pillars, Winter’s Daughter is immeasurably rich in metaphor throughout, and Maria doles them out in an almost parable-like form throughout the production (the symbolic apex being a recounted story of birds who refuse to fly South for the winter). The stunning visual projections on stage designed by Jaclyn Turner really solidify and tell the story however, and the transformation of thick tufts of snow transforming into flying birds and pillars of salt is nothing short of visually mesmerizing.

Rounding out the cast is Amir Sám Nakhjavani as both the peddler who entrusts his unwittingly nomadic young daughter to Maria and Giussepe while he travels to Naples for the harsh winter selling season, and Giacomo – Giussepe’s loud-mouthed, brash, flamboyant and wisecracking buddy (the one many of us have, whether we like to admit to it or not). It is a testament to Nakhjavani’s expansive talents how he can contrast and meld the soft-spoken, gentle peddler with the somewhat uncomfortable hybrid of John Travolta’s Vinnie Barbarino and fad comic Andrew “Dice” Clay that essentially IS Giacomo for most of the character’s presence in the production.

Things do take a turn for the majorly melancholic eventually, and the two children’s fate (Rosie and the peddler’s daughter Rina, played by Alice Denton) extensively come into play. The tone of the majority of the characters change, as powerful questions about cultural origins, religion, human responsibility and painful loss come into focus. The razor sharp directorial abilities of Emma Tibaldo are put to the test here, as tonal and mood shift becomes the order of the day. From co-founder of the Talisman Theatre and director of award-winning production That Woman to becoming Artistic and Executive Director of Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, Tibaldo’s vision of transition and revelation is really a thing of beauty to watch throughout.

Rob Denton’s (little Alice’s father) sound design helps complete the picture with the sonic smorgasbord used to full effect to complement Turner’s amazing screen projections, and both the audio and visual aspects of this stage production will imprint itself upon memory rather effortlessly. Lara Kaluza’s period costume design essentially nails it and visually takes you back to the peasant European years before the Great Depression but following the Great War. Zoe Roux’s tasteful set and lighting creation captures the sights of the agricultural setting, and simple early 20th century lighting are expertly done not to lend a sense of aggrandization to Maria and Giuseppe’s status in life.

Come grab a slice of simple, yet complex European family life in a nation reeling from what it’s been through, and let these fine performers and crew introduce you to a family on the verge of going through more – a winter blizzard’s worth of change and upheaval; playing at the Segal Studio until December 8th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .

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