“A new Chafe play,” Newfoundland theatre scholar Denyse Lynde writes in her introduction to Robert Chafe: Two Plays, “is an event of some importance; it is impossible to predict its nature, but it will be new, it will be different, and it will be theatrically exciting.” If precedent is any indication, then each new Chafe play is also likely to be nominated for one of this country’s highest literary honours: “Butler’s Marsh” and “Tempting Providence,” the scripts that comprise the aforementioned Two Plays, earned Chafe a 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award nomination. Last year, he not only made the GG shortlist once again—for his stage adaptation of Michael Crummey’s short story “After Image”—but won.
Flesh & Blood, the 1998 story collection from which “After Image” is drawn, is set in the town of Black Rock, Newfoundland—“a fictional mining town,” Crummey tells us in his brief introduction to Chafe’s Afterimage. He goes on to describe the gestation of his short story, how numerous real-life anecdotes “began circling one another” in his head and “created a gravitational field that pulled in dozens of other stray incidents and stories” that he had heard growing up, “many of them offering variations on images of fire or electricity.”
Much of Chafe’s adaptation sticks close to Crummey’s original storyline: In the beginning, Winston Evans, a line worker, is badly electrocuted while working on a downed line. He recuperates in the hospital, where he is cared for by a laundress, Lise Lacoeur. Lise is a community fortune teller whose powers of prognostication inform her that she and the burned man will one day be married. And so it comes to pass. Some years later, they have two children of their own, Theresa and Jerome, and have adopted a third, Leo.
Though Leo is unaware of his adopted status, it’s clear to him that he doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Evans clan. Theresa and Jerome have their mother’s flaming red hair, are left-handed, and seem touched with her precognitive gift. Winston is so scarred from his electrocution that the school children, while teasing the Evans kids, refer to him as “the hamburger man.” Leo has neither visible wounds nor physical attributes in common with his supposed family. The play’s tension is rooted in Leo’s difference, which, ironically, lies in his utter normality—at least by wider societal standards.
One thing that sets this play apart from other productions, and makes it such a successful adaptation of the story on which it is based, is its highly innovative set design. In designing the set, Jillian Keiley, Artistic Director of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland (which premiered Afterimage at the Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, in 2009), and frequent collaborator of Chafe’s, made the metaphorical literal by creating an electrified stage. The actors’ costumes were wired such that they could create sparks or mimic flashing cameras, or otherwise literally manifest the electrical current that figuratively runs through Crummey’s short story, and through the play.
Thus, the “Evans touch”—which is what teasing schoolchildren warn against while avoiding physical contact with the Evans kids—is physically manifested by sparks touched off between actors. Electricity becomes the defining element of kinship, a current that passes through the family members like electricity through a completed circuit. That Leo lacks the Evans touch is further proof of his difference.
Honestly, though, writing this review feels a bit like trying to describe Rome by quoting a map or guidebook, without ever having visited the city itself. There’s value in examining a play as text, but I suspect that Afterimage is the kind of theatre that must be seen in order to be fully experienced. It seems to me that much of its effect relies on the accumulation of impressionistic scenes, shot through with electric light, and that much of the script (including the presence of a chorus, which relates snippets of interior monologue and occasional editorial summations), works to contextualize that visual experience of light and dark—the interplay between the two.
Here’s hoping for a remount sometime in the near future.