Crosstown Players stay factually accurate and emotionally poignant in Sarah Girty’s War
he Crosstown Players’ latest project is a story of family turbulence and the struggle to maintain a familiar way of life in the midst of mass, adverse change– or to find a better life altogether.
In this case, that change is the War of 1812 crossing the Canada-United States border and taking over the properties and lives of Canadian civilians.
Sarah Girty’s War, written by Crosstown Players’ artistic director and co-founder James Mays and set in the Windsor area, is the first of their Heritage 1812 series highlighting the local impact the War of 1812 had during what is the war’s bicentennial anniversary.
The play begins by introducing the obviously tense relationship between Sarah Girty (Roberta Hunter) and her limping son Lemuel (Angelo Ciardella).
Sarah is both fanatically Roman Catholic and loyal to the Crown of England. Lemuel is curious and eager for a change in his routine– his mother is always telling him that he cannot think too much or else he will go into one of his fits, which bring him “visions from satan.” She also refers to him as an imbecile. Lemuel’s physical restrictions, as well as the lack of support from his mother, lead him to seek adventure when American soldiers occupy the family farm.
Enter American soldier and slave James Cuffy Shaw (Matthew Freake). He covers the household’s Union Jack with the Republican Stars and Stripes, demanding that the Girtys become U.S. citizens. The enmity between Shaw and Sarah ensues from there, pitting loyalty to one country against patriotism for another.
However, the relationship between James and Lemuel is entirely different. James secretly teaches Lemuel how to read and teaches him “conjures”– prayers and rituals from his African-Christian-based religion. After a while, it becomes clear that the two of them have developed romantic feelings for each other.
The strained relationship between Sarah and her son and the differences in opinion between Sarah and James make each of their lives increasingly difficult, and the chances of a better life on the horizon look increasingly bleak. The tension builds, but never to the boiling point where an emotional explosion of a climax occurs. The end is a surprising twist to the story– not out of character or fortuitous, but certainly not expected, either.
It is obvious that Mays did his research on the era of the setting, as every aspect of early-1800s Canadian life is infused into the play, from the attire and speech to the attitudes and harsh realities of the day and age.
Sarah Girty’s War is both emotionally charged and amusing, and the actors’ portrayal of the characters is passionate, pitch-perfect and entirely enthralling.
Sarah Girty’s War runs until Feb. 4 at Mackenzie Hall. Ticket information can be found at crosstownplayers.ca.