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Review: A poignant play of the coal mining life in Cape Breton

The Glace Bay Miners' Museum a touching, tragic story of a way of life largely gone.

For those who don't understand the dangers of life as a coal miner, the latest play from Edmonton's Walterdale Theatre is a good primer. The Glace Bay Miners' Museum is a memory play; a melancholy look back at a time not that long ago when the men of Cape Breton made their living by going underground--dangerous, long hours spent mining coal with no guarantee of coming back up again at the end of the day.

Wendy Lill has written a poignant tale in that setting, recounting an ill-fated love between a wandering musical dreamer and a Cape Breton miner's daughter. In this two-hour, two-act play, we follow young Margaret MacNeil (Katie Corrigan) living with her family in a shoe-box sized home typical of all who worked the mines. An idealistic, bag-pipe playing dreamer and young Margaret fall in love and share the home and difficult years with an ailing grandfather, hardened mother and miner (and union-championing) brother. The entire group is tough as nails; wearied by a difficult life, but with human spirit intact. 

Life is already tragic in this story: Margaret, her mother Catherine (Susanne Ritchie) and brother Ian (Chris Gaertner) have lost their husband/father and son/older brother in a coal mine explosion. Grandpa (Dale Wilson) is left with bad lungs and no voice from his time underground too. Though he fights against it, calling a life working in the mines only fit for worms, it seems an inevitable fate for wanderer Neil Currie (Justin Deveau) too, as he must find a way to earn a living and build a home on the seashore for his beloved Margaret. 

The entire cast does a lovely job in telling this tale and making the audience feel the quiet desperation of such a life--Corrigan, Ritchie and Gaertner bring those feelings to the fore. Even Wilson's grandpa, without saying a word, expresses the struggles (and occasional joys) of the mining life. Deveau is especially strong as the feisty Currie, with a lust for life, his wife, his rum and a song. It's a big, fun role and the actor brings it to life in fine fashion. And kudos to accent coach Owen Bishop who has instructed the players in a fine Cape Breton accent, indeed.

As a memory play, the audience follows Margaret and her remembrances of a life that ended in tragedy. In the end all she has is her memories and relics from the mines to comfort her--that and a telling of her story to an engaged audience. It's a heartfelt production all around, led with a gentle, understanding touch by director Anne Marie Szucs. 

In her notes, the director shares that this story is her family's story too, living the life of the coal mines near Glace Bay decades ago, in a similar 'small, wooden, barely-room-to-sneeze-in-home that was difficult yet filled with love, music and humour'. That's the endearing heart of this play too; despite physical hardship and worry over paying the light bill or putting another supper of turnips on the table, the MacNeil family can take pleasure in a card game, tumbler of rum or even a bat-and-ball game; it's a touching testament to resiliency--carrying on come what may.

The real-life mine at Glace Bay closed for good in the 1980s--though others still exist in Nova Scotia--a way of life ended in many such small communities and someday to be forgotten if not for plays like this one.

Take in The Glace Bay Miners' Museum at Walterdale Theatre until October 29. Ticket information is at