For Ottawa-area audiences, part of the charm of the theatrical adaptation of Up To Low, by Ottawa author Brian Doyle, is that it’s based on a road trip in our own backyard. Set in 1950, the tale takes us from the city’s Lowertown neighborhood to a family cabin in Low, a classic example of the time-honored Canadian tradition of getting out of the city in the summer.

In the play, the characters are traveling the old Quebec highway along the Gatineau River and there are landmarks that anyone who’s made the journey will recognize. It’s a hoot to hear the place names along the way—Ironsides, Gleneagle, Kirk’s Ferry, Tenaga, Wakefield, Alcove—and recall the treacherous curves that had to be negotiated.

First mounted at Arts Court’s tiny studio theatre in 2015 after 2014 reading at Brennan’s Hill, the current production represents the culmination of a grassroots endeavor dedicated to bringing the story to a bigger stage. Lovingly adapted from Doyle’s book by Janet Irwin, who also directed the play and helped coordinate the fundraising efforts to develop it, it’s a rare example of something made in Ottawa becoming a hit and moving up a notch in the theatre world. The simple fact that it’s being presented on the NAC stage is something of a triumph for any Canadian production.

At the same time, by making a jump to a national stage we’re compelled to look at it in a wider context: Would it be so effective if one was not familiar with the Ottawa-Gatineau area?

Despite my bias as a person from Ottawa who’s spent many weekends on the Quebec side, my suspicion is yes, it has the potential to move any audience with the warmth, humor, and thoughtful use of language in the script. And after all, this road trip is essentially a quest, a universal theme in which our heroes face various obstacles that must be overcome on their journey to a greater understanding of themselves.

The central character is 15-year-old Tommy, played by the likable red-haired Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, who sets off for the cabin with his father, Tom (played by Chris Ralph) and alcoholic uncle Frank (Attila Clemann). Frank is driving them in his new Buick, and it takes hours, partly because he’s been drinking and wants to continue. Hilarity, as you can imagine, ensues at every stop.

Along with the laughs, there is a terrific musical score, written and performed by Chelsea-based musician Ian Tamblyn with two other players joining him on stage: fiddler Ellen Daly and multi-instrumentalist Pat Maher. The music ranges from lilting Irish-influenced melodies to dark, moody atmospherics, with a well-timed cymbal crash every time the Buick gets dinged.

There is a dark side to the story, evidenced in the character of Mean Hughie (Paul Rainville), whose persona seems to get more fearsome the closer they get to him. His daughter, Brigitte (Megan Carty), is the green-eyed girl that Tommy can’t stop thinking about and is determined to help, even when it comes to facing the mysterious forces that emanate from the Paugan Dam.

But this is no Heart of Darkness-like tale of a descent into evil and madness. The final leg of the journey contains spooky dream sequences, a gripping underwater scene and plenty of family drama, but there is also forgiveness, healing, and ultimately, love.

Also adding to the play’s appeal is the inventive staging, with cabaret-style tables and chairs for the handful of audience members immediately in front of the stage, and well-choreographed driving scenes that call for imagination. While there’s a lot to pack into the 95-minute running time (no intermission), it’s a well-paced and lively tale that also offers a look at what life was like for people who remember the old ways—before things like damming a river and paving a highway were considered the epitome of progress.

By Brian Doyle, adapted and directed by Janet Irwin

NAC English Theatre production

Up To Low plays until May 19, Babs Asper Theatre, National Arts Centre

This article was originally posted by Capital Critics’ Circle on May 7, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.


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