Come Down From Up River is Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s latest in his Maritime saga. The show had its Fredericton audience laughing during its four performances from Nov. 8 - 10.
The story unfolds around three characters: Shaver Bennett, a grizzled logger who has spent 40 years isolated in Northern New Brunswick, played by Peter Krantz; Shaver’s niece Bonnie Doyle who lives in Saint John as an aspiring lawyer, played by Amanda Parsons; and Bonnie’s wife Liv Arsenault, played by Kirsten Alter.
Shaver‒a nickname he has had since he was six years old‒starts having medical issues and his health forces him to leave his humble abode in the woods outside of Miramichi. The more pressing issue is that he’ll be staying with Bonnie and Liv, but Bonnie and Shaver have been estranged for more than 20 years. On top of that awkward lack of communication, Bonnie and Liv are worried that Shaver might be homophobic and racist as Liv is an African-Canadian.
As the audience learns along with Bonnie and Liv, Shaver isn’t quite who they expected him to be and your assumptions about others can tell you more about yourself than they ever could have about the other person.
Come Down from Up River was first performed at Foster Festival in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. Patricia Vanstone, Foster Festival’s artistic director, says the most dominant theme of the play is family. “Sometimes we’re born into that family and sometimes we choose our family,” she said.
Theatre New Brunswick’s new artistic director Natasha MacLellan was happy to have been part of the world premiere of the show. “Theatre New Brunswick and Norm have a long history, so it’s nice to see that recognized in the 50th anniversary season,” MacLellan said.
Foster’s relationship with Theatre New Brunswick extends back to the 1980s. “We met in 1984 during his second production with Theatre New Brunswick, it was The Melville Boys which was his first breakaway hit,” said Vanstone.
Foster wanted to focus on the Maritimes, as it has been his home on and off since 1979. “I just fell in love with the place,” he said.
Vanstone is connected to the Maritimes through St. Stephen, so she was excited to bring Norm’s style of “humour with heart” comedy back to a New Brunswick stage. “He takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions through the telling of his stories. You really feel as if you know these people, and that they’re real people just as we are,” she said.
Foster’s work tends to be comedy with a hint of tragedy. “Comedy in the presence of some sad and poignant moments makes the funny moments funnier and the comedy makes the sadder moments more poignant. They really complement each other that way,” Foster said.
Vanstone was also glad to bring an “exploration of a biracial same-sex couple” to the New Brunswick stage. Given the current culture of the province, there is truth to the notion that some parts of New Brunswick may be less open to non-traditional family structures than others.
“I loved the conversation [the play] generated among our audiences. It touched people, and it gave them some insight into the LGBTQ+ perspective. Also, the fact that in this script we have diversity written into a Norm Foster script for the first time. It will always be an African-Canadian actress playing the role of Liv, and I think that’s significant,” said Vanstone.
Come Down From Up River aims to help audiences appreciate the time they have with their own families and brings a delightful creative focus onto New Brunswick. And, as Vanstone says, it serves to remind everyone that “no matter what, love is love.”