You have to give credit to playwright Jonathan Wilson for creating one of the most comically inventive Go-Go dancing scenes written for an exotic entertainer. While most Go-Go dancers just bump and grind to house music, Thomas Robertson (Ryan Clardy) wears a Kilt and dances the Scottish Highlands Victory dance. What leads to this humorous moment is at the heart of Jonathon Wilson’s Kilt, a bittersweet drama about family heritage, individual identity, and forgiveness.
Robertson grows up feeling he never measured up to his mother’s demanding dance standards. Ester McPhail Robertson (Dorothy Sheldon) runs a Dance Academy in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and was a dancing star in her youth.Â Rebelling against his mother, yet unable to leave the dancer in him behind, he flees to the fast life at the Ranch, a Toronto gay bar where he works as a table dancer. He wears the Kilt his grandfather wore when fighting in Tobruk, Libya during World War II.
When Thomas’ grandfather dies, his mother travels to Toronto to ask him to join her in attending the wake and funeral back in Glasgow, Scotland. Much her surprise, she finds out the Ranch is not a steak house, and Thomas is not a waiter. Wilson smartly avoids turning their confrontation into a PSA for PFLAG, but instead focuses on what has driven them apart — his mother’s imperious attitude.Â Once at the wake, we meet Thomas’ crazy Aunt, Mary McPhail (Jean Miller).Â All the while interspersed are scenes from 1941 which develop the relationship between Mac McPhail (Ryan Clardy) and Captain Lavery (Chris Niebling).
Wilson is an accomplished actor, and while having written a few other pieces before, you get the impression this is a breakthrough piece for the author. Nevertheless, there are still signs of a playwright in early career here. For instance, at the wake, all of the family’s nutty history is revealed, much to the unknowing Thomas’ chagrin. Like a stew with too many competing spices, there is too much family history discussed — so much so that many of the storylines introduced could have been the subject of a full length play themselves. Obviously, Wilson felt insecure about not having enough history to back up his notion that the McPhail family was crazy.
Director Vincent Worthington’s production taps along at a brisk pace never missing a beat. Ryan Clardy is a delight to watch as he does double duty, playing Thomas Robertson and his grandfather. Playing both roles requires an enormous range from Clardy, and he pulls it off with aplomb. Sheldon’s McPhail Robertson needs to be more brittle to be believable, but clearly knows how to pull a tear out of your eye when reconciling with her son.
Not to be clichÃ©, Miller gives the type of performance one imagines she was born to play. As the cast notes point out, Miller claims a Scottish/Canadian heritage which obviously inform her character, but she only uses her background as a starting point. In Miller’s hands, Mary McPhail is more than just the loony aunt kept away from a discriminating public, but rather a woman a humanity and understanding that goes beyond the author’s intentions.
Chris Neibling is given the challenging task of bringing to life a young army captain whose emerging sexual identity is in conflict with his military profession, his time — it’s 1941 — and himself. No doubt this is difficult territory, yet Neibling navigates it well. John Feist plays David, and his subtle performance is exactly on point for a character whose secret ties the entire play together.
Wilson’s poignant drama reminds us of the importance of our cultural identity as a driving force from one generation to the next, and Trumpet Vine’s production of Kilt is a engrossing evening in the theatre.
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