By Heidi Hagenlocher
Within three years, seven members of the Donnelly family died tragically.
Five of them were murdered on the same night-Feb. 4, 1880. The St. Nicholas Hotel, where one of those murders took place, is the name of the second part of The Donnelly Trilogy by Canadian playwright James Reaney.
It is also the first show of Ryerson Theatre School’s fall 2004 season, featuring the 29 fourth-year students from the 4-year acting program. The story of the Black Donnellys, as the family came to be known, began when James and Johannah Donnelly migrated to Canada from Tipperary, Ireland.
Once in London, Ont., they illegally took over 100 acres of vacant land along the Roman Line (nowadays part of Lucan, Ont., about 27 kilometres from London).
A land dispute ensued, resulting in murder, for which James Donnelly was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. The trouble started with the Donnelly’s eight children. Their second-oldest son, William, launched The Donnelly Stagecoach Line in 1873. It was so successful that a rivalry commenced between the Donnellys and the Flanagan & Crawly Stage, culminating with the Stagecoach Feud as it came to be known.
The violence resulting from the feud was largely blamed on the Donnellys. After the feud started, people accused the Donnellys of other things, like burned barns or stolen cows. Although the family was charged for numerous crimes, there were only a few times when they were actually convicted.
Hatred for the Donnellys grew until members of the family were murdered for that fact alone. “I think that the story of the Donnellys is about a group of people that were turned by hatred and by fear and by pride and by love. That it’s relevant for our audience because these things are in us, the mob mentality is in all of us,” said Sarah Dryden, a fourth-year acting student, who plays the role of Johannah Donnelly.
The actors took a trip to Lucan before performing the play to see the place where the Donnellys lived, which gave them a new understanding of the situation. “I think it grounded me in the reality of the play and these were real people, the fact that the town hadn’t talked about it until recently. That it really happened was what I figured out when I went to Lucan,” explained Dryden.
The play runs 180 minutes, but the actors do a great job of holding the audience’s attention. There are a number of scene changes but fourth-year acting student Justin Tilley, who plays William Donnelly, said the key is to keep them efficient and effective.
“Make it rich with scenery, but also keep the action going. It’s a pendulum,” he said. Guest director and Ryerson graduate, Kelly McIntosh, encouraged the students to put parts of themselves into the roles. “I think she tried to incorporate us into this play so that it connected with us as a group and was grounded in our identity,” said Dryden.
Matt Gorman, also a fourth-year acting student, plays Tom Ryan, a teenage boy who ran away from an abusive home to live with the Donnellys. Although he can find similarities between himself and his character, he enjoys the differences. “I’m not a manic slightly epileptic sociopath but I could be. There’s the potential,” he said.
One thing Dryden found difficult about her character, was the emotion she had to display. “I don’t live in anger as a person and I think that Johannah’s pride and anger lives in some of the scenes.” For Tilley, the show stands out in his mind for one reason.
“The biggest thing to remember about the show is that it happened…An entire family was massacred by a town.”