Nora McLellan is thrilled to have the title role in Aunt Agnes, the new Christmas family play by prolific Canadian playwright Norm Foster premiering this season.
The Foster Festival is offering what is being billed as Mary Poppins with a touch of Auntie Mame, a “zany romp through the ups and downs of family life, with a heartwarming Christmas message.”
McLellan, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident for decades, came to town to perform with the Shaw Festival in 1980.
“I’ve lived here off and on since then. I was here for Chris’s first season,” she says, referring to Christopher Newton, Shaw artistic director from 1980 to 2002.
In addition to Arms and the Man and several other plays at the Shaw over the years, she is probably best-known locally for her role in Gypsy.
Further afield she has appeared in several productions with the Stratford Festival, in Anne of Green Gables in Charlottetown, and with the Vancouver Playhouse.
Although it was the Shaw Festival that drew her to call Niagara-on-the-Lake home, it’s been about 10 years since she was part of the company, so she appreciates the emergence of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, and the opportunities it presents for her and other Shaw ensemble members, both past and present, close to home.
Aunt Agnes premieres at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, with 15 performances in The Recital Hall from Dec. 11 to 22.
Although far from Foster’s first Christmas play, it’s the first year the festival has extended its season in St. Catharines, offering a theatre experience for families to celebrate the holiday.
The story begins just two days before Christmas, when George and Sally Trimble and their two children, Melissa and Brian, are surprised by a visit from George’s Aunt Agnes — an aunt he didn’t know existed.
As Agnes settles in for the holidays, she develops a relationship with 14-year old Melissa that seems to be just what the teen needs.
As with most of Norm Foster plays, it’s a comedy with a light-hearted approach that encompasses a poignant message of value for all families.
McLellan isn’t the only Shaw veteran — Peter Hartwell is the designer, and Kelly Wong, as George, just finished his 11th season with the Shaw. Sally is played by local actor Cosette Derome, Brian by Hayden Neufeld, who played Oliver in Garden City Productions’ Oliver Twist, directed by another Shaw veteran, Donna Belleville. Neufeld received musical theatre training with NOTL’s Yellow Door Theatre Project. Niagara Falls actor Kate Peters is Melissa, “who really carries this play,” says McLellan.
“We’re all part of the same theatre community,” she adds.“We’re all in the theatre and the arts together.”
The Foster Festival, she says, “has given an awful lot of work to actors in this community, some working at the Shaw and others not with the Shaw.”
They all welcome any opportunity they’re given to work locally, enabling them to stay at home, she says.
Aunt Agnes “is really a family-friendly play for kids and grandparents especially. It’s a family Christmas show, no doubt about it,” says McLellan.
It’s a “little bit of magic,” she adds, with Aunt Agnes revealing she has “some extra power to make things happen. There’s a reason why she shows up on the doorstep when she does.”
The youngsters in the play are working hard, going to school and then heading to the theatre to rehearse, and are both doing a great job, says McLellan.
“This is a really lovely group of people to be in the room with. We’re having a great time, and it’s wonderful to have this so close, just down the road from Niagara-on-the-Lake,” she says.
“It would make a wonderful outing for grandparents and their grandkids, something for any family to enjoy over the holidays.”
For more information or tickets, visit https://www.fosterfestival.com/site/aunt-agnes-for-christmas.