Tempting Providence is essentially quite undistinguished. It is also, in some ways, the most satisfying of the shows on offer this Fringe in the Traverse Theatre's smaller second house. This could be cause for worry.
Robert Chafe's piece, presented by Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, falls into that genre of the "ordinary-extraordinary woman" play. It tells the story of someone who made a distinct difference in her own small field but remains unknown outside that field and is unlikely to tempt casual curiosity. In this case, the subject is Myra Bennett, an Englishwoman who in 1921 volunteered to serve as nurse on a long and inaccessible stretch of coastal Newfoundland. Over the years she and the wary Newf' community grew attached to to one another, her ministrations improved the people's lot and... you know the drill.
If this were a solo show, it would fall squarely under the axe of the kind of Fringe theatre to avoid at all costs. Even with TNL's cast of four, I must admit I'm somewhat at a loss to explain how Jillian Keiley's production won me over. Its approach is basic: two men and two women, dressed in all-purpose off-white sort-of-period clothing, with a big table, four kitchen chairs and a large sheet, and that's it. There's a little too much repositioning of chairs every couple of minutes to denote shifting scenes, but the sheet is used nicely, especially when wound through one chair to become a back-pack which Nurse Bennett must haul through the Canadian-Atlantic winter on her journey on foot to a "neighbouring" community. In general, though, the staging has a kind of Shaker simplicity: it shows simple, strong, unadorned lines from point to dramatic point.
Deidre Gillard Rowlings almost manages a clipped English accent as Nurse Bennett, in contrast to the (to British ears) exotic Celtic-Norse-Canadian hybrid Newfoundland accents used in character by her three comrades; as well as a tribute to Bennett, the play is a hymn to the Newf' spirit of hardy perseverance. Overall, though, the play's 90 minutes constitute a disquieting microcosm of the Traverse's Fringe 2004 season: it's not a waste of one's time and attention, but nor will one's life be significantly enriched for having seen it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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