From the page to the stage on P.E.I.

Sally Cole
Published on May 30, 2014

For many people, The Master’s Wife is a book about Sir Andrew Macphail, a Canadian physician, author, professor of medicine and soldier who grew up in Orwell, P.E.I., in the 1800s.

For the Homestead Players, it’s a new show that is getting ready to make its debut next month.

“The script is nearly all Macphail’s words. We’ve taken excerpts from the book and rearranged them,” says Rob MacLean who, with Melissa Mullen and Harry Baglole, has penned and produced The Master’s Wife: A Theatrical Celebration that will premiere at Orwell Corner Historic Village Hall on June 28 at 2 p.m.

However, taking it from the page to the stage required some creativity.

“We had to focus on the things that people might enjoy watching. We also had to take the writer’s tone and peel back what’s underneath,” says MacLean of the play that begins when a group of modern day people arrives at the Macphail Homestead and starts to wander through it.

As they explore the various rooms, they discover Macphail’s memoir.

“By picking up the book and looking through it we bring to life the spirits of community people who come in and prompt us to tell their stories,” says MacLean.

Mullen says it makes for an enjoyable evening.

“It’s great storytelling. When we rehearse it, the time just flies by. These are really interesting stories about the unique, surprising people that he has remembered.”

For example, in the book, Macphail humorously describes his wife, Catherine, as “a Smith woman, a foreign person who came from five miles away.”

“So we’ve taken our chorus and made them the Smiths. So, after the first time or two, whenever the audience sees them in their positions on stage, they know, ‘oh, it’s the Smiths again.’ So it becomes a running gag,” she says.

Music also plays an important role in the show.

“All the songs that the chorus members sing are from Sir Andrew’s father, William Macphail, who wrote musical notation on the back of wallpaper that he used to teach singing in public schools. And fiddler Roy Johnstone plays his own tunes,” says Nancy Whytock, musical director, who transposed the music from the wallpaper.

Besides co-producing, MacLean plays Macphail.

“He is very genuine. His favourite adventure was discovering books, and the chance to steal away with a book when there was so much work to be done took a lot of strategic planning.

“He had to plan that very carefully so he could disappear into a book for hours on end. And what a delicious feeling that was in a life that was full of work.”

At times, Macphail is torn between wanting to escape the land and all the interminable work of a farm life and returning to a world of letters.

“But, at the same time, he is very drawn back to the land.

“Sir Andrew had a unique outlook because he was buddies with Rudyard Kipling but, at the same time, he could appreciate his upbringing here.”

Mullen also enjoys playing Catherine.

“She’s quite a feisty character. She also loved nature at a time when people wanted to dominate it because they needed to battle with it in order to get something to eat.

“For example, every night she would take 36 potted plants down to the basement so they would be warm enough. Then, the next morning, she would bring all 36 plants back up again. She did this when she was an old woman. Imagine that.”

Another story told in the show involves her compassion for animals.

Whenever the family drove to Charlottetown she would never allow the horse to take a loaded wagon, plus passengers, up Tea Hill.

“Instead, she would get out and walk beside the wagon as the horse pulled the loaded wagon up the hill without her weight in it.”


Fast facts

What: The Master’s Wife: A Theatrical Celebration.

Produced: By the Homestead Players.

When and where: The show will open on June 28 in the Orwell Corner Historic Village Hall at 2 p.m. Then it will run on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. until early August, followed by a tour of community halls around the Island in late September and early October.

Information: For tickets, call 651-8515 or 651-2789.

After the mussel mud is dug, there’s time for relaxation in The Master’s Wife: A Theatrical Celebration. From left are actors Sean McQuaid, Jack Whytock and Roy Johnstone.