‘Tis the season in Montreal theatre for merry holiday pantos, candlelight concerts, Russian ballets, and puppet plays, but gaining traction among this year’s lineup of staple stage spectacles is the unique offering of a gritty Canadian original that is unafraid of delving further into uncharted depths of the human spirit.
Resilience in the aftermath of tragedy is the kernel of Winter’s Daughter, a new drama produced by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre and developed with the support of Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, which makes its world premiere at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts from November 27th to December 8th.
It’s not exactly your traditional fairy tale holiday fanfare – but instead a cathartic, empowering piece on rising above and making your own Christmas miracles.
Grounded on the true – and, until now, untold – story of renowned Montreal barber Gino Chiarella’s family and inspired by K. David Brody’s short work The Peddler’s Daughter, this historical fiction transports us to a particularly cold winter in an isolated village in 1919 Calabria, Italy, where a couple weathering loss and grief suddenly find a Jewish girl in their care. Fearing the unknown “other” and threatened by the elements, they are then faced with the decision of whether to harbour the abandoned child or to look to their own needs and leave nature to its devices.
“Winter’s Daughter is about survival of the human spirit,” begins playwright Jesse Stong. “The premise is that we have these two characters who are coping with post-war trauma, and just when they think things can’t get any worse, the universe deals them another bad card. ‘How do you keep going and moving forward when you’re already past the point of insurmountable pain?’ is one of the fundamental questions. Interestingly enough, we discover that sometimes what actually happens in these moments is that the second shock shakes you out of the first, and instead of breaking down, it’s like you crack open.
“And then, there’s the problem of ‘how do you learn to love again when you’re suffering?’ Oftentimes it’s through the innocence of a child.”
Stong, who has two children of his own, wrote the play before becoming a father, and claims to have dramatically changed the script since its development began two years ago. “It became so much deeper,” he shares, reflecting on the newfound realization that “no matter what I’m going through, I have to wake up and take care of these kids.”
Parenthood and the different forms that it can take is one of the centrepiece themes that also pulled actor Michaela Di Cesare to the Winter’s Daughter – whom she plays mother to as Maria, Gino’s Chiarella’s grandmother, in the production (Amir Sám Nakhjavani and Ryan Bommarito are her two other co-stars in the show.)
“Since our first workshop, I was really drawn by the ideas of motherhood in this story,” she reveals, “and how a woman’s body continues to live after the loss of a child is one of the most important images that I have held onto throughout this creative process.” Stong has openly taken a feminist approach in this character-driven narrative, and Maria’s arc defines its locus.
Di Cesare’s connection to the piece is furthermore layered in that her own mother is from Calabria – a geocultural specificity important to its natives.
“I’ve actually never been cast as a character of my own ethnicity – unless I’ve written it for myself,” muses the Italo-Canadian playwright-performer. “That in itself has made this experience all the more significant.”
Director and dramaturge Emma Tibaldo, herself a daughter of Italian immigrants, echoes the gratitude of seeing her own represented on stage. “Rarely do I have the opportunity to delve into my heritage in my work. It’s extraordinary to able to go into the world of an Italian couple at the turn of the century – a time period that I am fascinated by. My mom would put me to sleep by telling me stories of World War II, and so I carried with me these grand images of war and struggle in that setting.”
In its very message of shifting focus from the self to the other, the intercultural play ultimately connects Italians and Jews through war – a seldom heard merging of voices, even in contemporary theatrical text.
“To see these two communities converge in this piece and to also have it resonate for anyone who has gone through a similar immigrant experience is cause for celebration,” adds the director.
Even though it’s plotted in the very aftermath of the first World War, Winter’s Daughter feels hauntingly current in telegraphing the rise of fascism and alluding to a swelled movement of an extreme right of hatred.
“The play has the subtle feel of this ambiguous threat in the air that’s only just starting,” teases Stong, “where you can sense the rumble and residue slowly rising to the surface.”
As an audience, we know what’s coming, and “we’re not pretending that genocide and the holocaust aren’t part of the future for these characters,” elaborates Tibaldo. “This piece is about built around us knowing that and them grappling with a vision of what the future is. People can’t imagine going through another war when one has just ended, and yet it’s happened. And it can happen again if we’re not vigilant. I look at the immigrant situation in the States, our own controversial Bill 21, and no man’s land on the border, and it terrifies me to think of the repercussions.”
“What does it mean to be 20 years before an implosion? Or right on the cusp of it?”, prompts Di Cesare, “because maybe that’s where we are in so many ways – politically, environmentally. This play has a pulse on that and brings it close to the skin.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as “to me, this story is ultimately one about saying yes to love and life,” expresses Tibaldo. “There’s a lot of heart in it and it does come from a real pull of how a true story that becomes a theatrical experience that can speak to the world we live in right now.”
She concludes: “[Winter’s Daughter] opens up the bigger questions of who we are as humans and what it means to be thought of as different when we’re all essentially looking for the same thing. How do acts of humanity – not kindness, but humanity – help us move forward? How can we co-exist to hold each other up as opposed to tearing each other down? How can we open our hearts? –– that’s the only thing that really matters. I think that Jesse’s heartwrenching and beautiful play drives that home.”
Tableau D’Hôte Theatre presents the World Premiere of
Winter’s Daughter by Jesse Stong
November 27th to December 8th, 2019
at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts Studio
(170 Côte-Ste-Catherine, Montreal, QC, H3W 1M)