On June 29 a bronze statue of Canada's World War II Prime Minister will be unveiled at Castle Kilbride, near Baden, Ontario. This will depict William Lyon Mackenzie King as a mature man, but for a look back into his youth a play currently being performed in Kitchener is the place to go.
The play, entitled Secret at Woodside, is the brainchild of Stephen W. Young. In an interview for Sun News, Young said he is fascinated by how King developed. “What changed him into a cold, calculating politician? He grew up in Kitchener (then Berlin) with Germans, Mennonites and other groups. His family took him to different churches, so that he had an appreciation for other cultures.” In an age when ethnic or religious groups often mixed only with their own kind, this gave the young King a perspective that “let him become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history.” He served more than 21 years in the top post.
The most sensational aspect of King's staid life (“He was married to the country,” said Young) were the seances he indulged in. This was never publicly known during his tenure as leader, but it all started in his youth. “A lot of people did seances in those days,” explained Young, referring to the late 19th century. King lived at Woodside in Kitchener from 1886 to 1893, which is where the play is set. The real Woodside is now a National Historic site which is open to the public on the rare occasion the government has enough money to open the doors.
A séance in the play is a key aspect of the plot, highlighting the bravura performance of Sonja-Ticknor-Malton as the fake medium Madame Zona. She plays the role in a totally over-the-top caricature of what we expect an eastern European medium to be, complete with accent, garb, crystal ball and dire warnings of the future. “Madame Zona has a flair for the dramatic,” deadpans Detective Dickson early in the play. (Several cast members play dual roles, but I won't confuse this brief review with the details).
Her nemesis in the play is the Berlin police detective just mentioned, played with suitable gravitas by Brian Otto. His initial investigation into the happenings at the King household uncover not one, but two secrets at Woodside. I won't offer any spoilers here!
The young King is convincingly played by Graeme Currie, who gets to speak some of the real words written by King about his early years. He is ably supported in his role by his two sisters and his Mother, played by Diana Barber. Popular legend is that King was totally dominated by his Mother, but playwright Young rightly places father King (played by John Hurwitz) as the person who ran the household.
The unlikely person of Homer Watson, the famous painter, is a recurring figure in the play. Played by Trevor Middleton, Watson sets the tone for the production as he discusses the link between “man, nature and the spiritual world.”
I could go on, but delving further would likely allow one of the secrets to leak out, and we all know how contentious leaks are these days! Suffice to say that Secret at Woodside is placed at the crossroads about King becoming the man of Canada's future. It is a welcome candle on Canada's 150th birthday cake.
Performances continue through June 18 at KWMP Arts Centre in Kitchener, near the corner of Lackner and Ottawa. Order online at: www.woodscribe.ca/secretatwoodside.html.