Experiencing a Norm Foster play called 1812 on the grounds of Fort George National Historic Site makes perfect sense.
Though the story itself doesn’t take place in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Parks Canada property acts as a fitting backdrop to the tale of neighbouring towns split apart when U.S. president James Madison declares war against Britain in an attempt to defeat and perhaps occupy part of Canada.
Ontario-born playwright Foster lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, about an hour’s drive from St. Stephen, a town of 4,400 on the St. Croix River. Across the river sits another small town, Calais, Maine, with a current population of 3,100.
The populations of both towns were much smaller 210 years ago when war was declared. Early settlers on both sides of the border freely crossed the river to visit friends. Most didn’t identify themselves as American, British or Canadian. Instead, they considered themselves one community, until the American Revolution brought their differences to light.
Foster had often heard a story about Calais running out of gunpowder while preparing for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations in the midst of the War of 1812. The mayor of Calais asked his counterpart in St. Stephen for a loan of gunpowder so they could have a fireworks display. St. Stephen’s mayor obliged, and the celebration was held.
That story became the groundwork for 1812, a play directed by Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon,, that adeptly and humorously explores the themes of love, friendship, loyalty, racism and patriotism.
At its heart, 1812 is a comedy. David Nairn portrays St. Stephen Mayor Wallace Edwards, who has recently experienced a fall from his trusty steed. Having seriously bumped his head, he has become quite addled, needing constant reminders by his wife, played by Patricia Yeatman, that her name is Millicent.
It also means that Wallace says what he is thinking, often without thinking much at all. That is evident first when he expresses his opinion of Britain’s King George, whom he refers to as an imbecile. It is also evident when he meets visitor Ben Strong for the first time.
Strong portrays one of the early free Black settlers in the area, many of whom worked in construction and in local mills. Recently arrived from England, Strong is sent by his American employer to offer assistance to the Edwards family in light of Wallace’s accident.
In his addled state, Wallace asks Ben, played by Foster Festival newcomer Edmond Clark, if he knows he is a Negro, using the term that was common at the time. He utters the word completely without malice, but deserves the dressing down he continues to receive from both Millicent and his daughter Caroline.
Ellen Denny’s Caroline is smitten with Strong, much to the chagrin of American Frederick Thomas, who hopes to win her heart. Much humour comes from Strong asking the 30-year-old Caroline why she has yet to find a suitor. It seems her ability and willingness to plough fields, chop wood and dig wells has scared off the eligible bachelors of both towns through the years.
When war is declared, Frederick, played by Jesse Dwyre, eagerly enlists with the hopes of becoming a Lieutenant in the Massachusetts Militia. In contrast, Wallace refuses to even acknowledge the conflict, and continues to cross the bridge between the two towns, where a bribe of a bottle of booze to the town drunk Gibby, now in charge of the crossing, will ease the passage.
The idea of allegiance to one country over another seems foreign to the Edwards family, and to Strong as well. Only Frederick, who jealously tries to arrest Strong for “consorting with the enemy,” seems to have any desire to see the conflict ensue.
Meanwhile, Strong endears himself to the Wallace family, getting closer to Caroline through their frequent rides through the countryside. He also endears himself to the only servant remaining on the Wallace staff, the ribald and forward Henrietta. Lisa Horner, a Dora Award winner and television actor (Kim’s Convenience, Little Mosque on the Prairie) is hilarious every time she bursts onto set, blatantly throwing herself at Strong, who seems confused by her advances.
Nairn portrays Mayor Edwards with a perfect mixture of bluster and confusion. He’s a marvel, especially in Act 2. Strong has offered to teach Wallace Italian to help “work out” his memory muscles. Nairn’s face can barely conceal Wallace’s joy as he eloquently strings together phrases in that language.
And Nairn’s back-and-forth with Dwyre about the pivotal battles of the War of 1812, with each bragging about their own country having won, is a tour de force.
Mixed in with all the humour, Foster’s play leaves one pondering the idea of loyalty in general. Is one to be loyal to their country in this time of war, or is one to be loyal to those with whom they share a common bond despite the border that separates them? It’s clear where the Edwards family stands on this.
It’s also clear that Strong finds himself at a crossroads near the end of the play due to his race. As the war progresses, he announces his plans to leave Calais, feeling that he has not been fully accepted by the townsfolk on either side of the border.
Though 1812 has a cast of only six actors, the seventh principal playing a part in this performance is the fort itself. The sounds of the birds flying by and the blue sky above the barracks, where the stage is nestled, add an air of authenticity to the subject matter.
And it must be mentioned that Fort George staff and members of the Friends of Fort George are perfect hosts for the world premier of one of 10 plays written by Foster during the pandemic. Audiences last Friday were greeted by an introduction from Dan Laroche in full period officer’s uniform. Laroche gave a short history of the hallowed grounds and their importance in the battle that cemented the national identity of Canadians.
1812 runs until June 23 at Fort George. Special event packages are also available for some performances, including Drinks, Duels & Dads, a Father’s Day package, and Food in the Fort on Wednesday, June 22. Visit fosterfestival.com for information and tickets.