Theatrical Adaptation of Iconic Canadian Novel Asks Us to Witness

Kyla Whetham*

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Fall On Your Knees, Part One: Family Tree and Part Two: The Diary. Co-created and adapted by Hannah Moscovitch and Alisa Palmer, written by Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Alisa Palmer. Performers: Tim Campbell, Janelle Cooper, Diane Flacks, Eva Foote, Deborah Hay, Samantha Hill, Drew Moore, Tony Ofori, Cara Rebecca, Maryem Tollar, Amaka Umeh, Dakota Jamal Wellman, Jenny L. Wright, Antoine Yared, Kira Chisholm, Naomi Ngebulana. Set design: Camelia Koo. Music supervisor and composer: Sean Mayes. Sound design: Brian Kenny. Costume design: Judith Bowden. Lighting design: Leigh Ann Vardy. Production Premiere: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Bluma Appel Theatre, 21 January 2023 to 5 February 2023. Performance: National Arts Centre, Babs Asper Theater, 24 March 2023 to 25 March 2023.

Hannah Moscovitch’s and Alisa Palmer’s dramatic adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1996 novel asks us to witness histories of sexual violence against—and the resilience of—women in Canada.

Fall On Your Knees (2023) is a dramatic adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel of the same name. Set primarily in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the narrative follows the Piper family across three generations, from 1899 to 1964. The production extended its own runtime to encompass this narrative timeline, splitting its presentation into two parts: Part One: The Family Tree and Part Two: The Diary. My viewing experience, accordingly, stretched across two days at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Through the Pipers, the production confronts cycles of abuse, systemic power inequalities and the challenges of uncovering the hidden truths of one’s family history. Mirroring the novel, which is inspired by both MacDonald’s personal background—she is of Scottish and Lebanese ancestry and hails from Cape Breton—and historic events that impacted Canada across the twentieth century, the stage adaptation unfolds against the backdrop of the World Wars and the coal miners’ strike (part of the 1920s Cape Breton labour wars).

Anthony (Dakota Jamal Wellman) sits in the living room of the Piper family home, holding a record from the leftover collection. Fall On Your Knees, Part Two: The Diary. Written by Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Alisa Palmer. Premiere: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Bluma Appel Theatre, 21 January 2023. Photo: John Lauener

Camelia Koo’s set design immediately welcomed audiences into a turn-of-the-century, rural East Coast scene. Ribbons of beige fabric mimicked slats of wood as they tautly reached from the rafters to the stage floor, calling to mind the shiplap indicative of Maritime communities. A piano sat stage right, joining a semi-circle of aged, wooden chairs resting mid-stage centre, their seats facing the house. Completing the picture downstage right was a small living room set-up. The set evoked traditions of oral storytelling, simultaneously eerie and inviting, and indicated that the audience would play a significant role as spectators to the pursuing tale.

Lily (Eva Foote) comforts a homeless man (Drew Moore), ill and unable to make it back to his family. Photo: John Lauener

Narrated by a woman later revealed to be Lily Piper (Eva Foote), the story begins with the young and forbidden marriage of James Piper (Tim Campbell), age 19 and of European descent, and Materia Mahmoud (Cara Rebecca), age 12 and of Lebanese descent. Due to the gap in their age and Materia’s marriage outside of her own family and cultural tradition, the pair are simultaneously exiled from their local society and the Mahmoud family. As a result, they are forced to live on the outskirts of the island. Together, they raise three daughters: Kathleen (Samantha Hill), Mercedes (Jenny L. Wright) and Frances (Deborah Hay); however, tragedy strikes the Pipers time and again, as the family’s life is inflicted with domestic abuse, physical and sexual violence and death. Kept secret for decades, these patterns of violence remain unacknowledged and haunt the Piper family. It is precisely these cycles of violence and their persistent, looming presence at the edges of the Pipers’ lives that co-creators Hannah Moscovitch and Alisa Palmer highlighted in their production.

While there are nods to historical and systemic violence within the broader society, such as racism and homophobia, the production focused on James as the source of harm for the Piper women. As a husband, he physically, verbally and emotionally abuses Materia in an effort to create the “perfect” home. As a father, he struggles to combat his recurring sexual attraction to his daughters. This includes a short enlistment in the First World War as a means of removing himself from his family and, thereby, avoiding these desires. These measures prove to be fruitless: following increasing hints in each act, it is revealed that both Kathleen and Frances have been raped by their father. Kathleen becomes pregnant and later dies from complications in childbirth.

Rose (Amaka Umeh), on her apartment fire escape, speaks with Kathleen (Samantha Hill), who stands on the street below. A man (Drew Moore) leans against the fire escape. Photo: John Lauener

The violence surrounding Kathleen’s life and death is one of the more prominent themes in MacDonald’s novel. Honouring this in their adaptation, Moscovitch and Palmer translated this theme to the dramatic text through repetitions of dialogue and blocking. A ritual completed by Frances and Lily in the attic of their home is a prime example: phrases such as “What happened in this attic?” and “[Kathleen] was only nineteen when she died of the flu” (the cover story concocted by James) appear three times in the play as Frances and Lily repeatedly commemorate the sister they have lost. Simple on the surface, the ritual operated as a constant reminder of both the sexual assault suffered by Kathleen as well as the violent way in which she subsequently died. Kathleen’s memory refuses to disappear, begging for someone to acknowledge the violence inflicted upon her.

As audience members, we immediately became witnesses to the Piper women’s epidemic by virtue of observing the violence at hand. Almost every slap, shove and scream were placed at centre stage and in bright light, creating moments akin to the adage of witnessing car wrecks: you want to look away but simply cannot stop watching. The production further encouraged witnessing through its set design. In Act Two of Part One, two of the wooden chairs left the stage floor to hang mid-air. Remaining in the air for the rest of Part One and much of Part Two, the chairs acted as vessels for the now-deceased Pipers, Kathleen and Materia; that is, their constant presence above the stage served as a reminder of the violence each woman endured. Paradoxically absent and present via these chairs, the memory of these women lingered for the audience throughout the rest of the production.

Rose (Amaka Umeh), Lily (Eva Foote) and Anthony (Dakota Jamal Wellman) view the Piper family tree. Photo: John Lauener

Moscovitch and Palmer close the production with an epilogue not present in MacDonald’s novel. A final tableau depicts the entire cast standing together in a makeshift family portrait and facing the house. It is a reunion in which all characters—dead and living—come together in unity. From the position of the audience, looking at the actors looking back at us, the boundary between dramatic performance and reality beyond the stage dematerialized. Confronted with the unyielding gaze of the Pipers and their surrounding community, our spectatorial position was laid bare. On the surface, the moment demanded recognition of the Pipers’ story and the decades of violence the Piper women endured. Moving deeper, however, the tableau also demanded recognition for the very real Pipers existing beyond the stage—the countless women across the nation who have historically and continue to be subjected to physical and sexual assault, domestic and otherwise. 

*Kyla Whetham is a 2023 graduate of the Masters of Theatre Theory and Dramaturgy program at the University of Ottawa. She is also an alumnus of the University of Toronto Cinema Studies program. In addition to her studies, she regularly participates in community and regional theatre, both on stage and behind the scenes.

Copyright © 2023 Kyla Whetham
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