Tompkinsville is a powerful, epic Cape Breton play about a little-known history.
In the 1930s the tiny town of Reserve Mines fought against the Dominion Coal Company's crushing control of their lives to pioneer the first credit union in Atlantic Canada, one of the first co-op stores in Atlantic Canada and the first co-op housing in North America.
Sound dry? Not at all.
Reserve Mines native Lindsay Kyte, great niece of co-op pioneers Joe and Mary Laben, brings history alive in a fast-paced, intense story that is true to human nature and authentic to Cape Breton's culture.
There was a not a dry eye in the house by the end of Tompkinsville on opening night. The Eastern Front Theatre production, running to Dec. 3 in the Neptune studio theatre, received a standing ovation.
The play, made more passionate with the original music that runs throughout, will inspire anyone who sees it to try to be a better person and strive for a better world.
Tompkinsville begins with Lindsay Kyte herself, an intense petite redhead, telling people in the audience they are sitting in the Reserve Mines Fire Hall and about to hear a story.
As she and guitarist Chris Corrigan move to the sidelines, time slips back to the Dirty Thirties and the blazing Father Jimmy Tompkins erupts into the lives of downtrodden coal miners Joe Laben and his colourful, aggressive pal Dancin' Archie Devison.
Father Jimmy, in a fantastically hard-driving, robust and comical portrayal by Lee J. Campbell, is a bull-headed, biscuit-loving, impassioned evangelist sent by Father Moses Coady, of the Antigonish Movement, to help out Reserve Mines.
He urges people to not accept their bleak lives but to experience a “divine discontent” to be bigger and more powerful than they think they are by working together in co-operatives.
Everyone is very skeptical at first and it's the quiet, intelligent Mary Laben, beautifully and sensitively played by Laura Caswell, who first reads the pamphlets that Father Jimmy has been leaving all over town. She and Tompkins win over her German-born husband, a deep-thinking, shy man unlikely to lead. Jeff Schwager anchors this essential character.
Driving the conflict is the resistant Dancin' Archie, a wonderfully dense and vital character as played by Ian Gilmore. Kiersten Tough is a match as his tough-talking Irish wife. Tough's strong Irish accent must give way later to an American one for social activist Mary Arnold.
The playwright's language is colourful and rich with Father Jimmy's pistons of exclamatory phrases matched by appealing accents and vivid turns-of-phrase by the other characters.
Kyte tells her story — as most Cape Bretoners do — with music in stirring, original songs that she sings in a clear, penetrating, passionate voice to Corrigan's excellent guitar to amplify the joys and struggles of these hardy people.
Garrett Barker's lighting design with lots of dim spaces for the mine and a feeling of oppression is key to the moods and rhythms of this show. The costumes selected from Neptune Theatre's wardrobe by Emlyn Murray and Mary-Colin Chisholm wonderfully set the period and the people's economic circumstances.
Director Martha Irving does a fine job. The play has a bit of a bumpy start, then skates smoothly and quickly to an end that knits the past to the present in a sweet, effective way.
All the original songs are by Ian Sherwood, composer and lyricist, and Kyte, lyricist, with the exception of Herrin' and Potatoes, a contest-winner written by Sherwood's grandmother. The music is rich in many different shades and beats, the lyrics strong as Cape Breton tea.
Eight years in the making, Tompkinsville is as unforgettable as Cape Breton classics Glace Bay Miner's Museum, No Great Mischief and Marion Bridge and is a great addition to Cape Breton literature.
The play, produced by Eastern Front in association with Go Fly A Kyte Productions, runs at two hours and 10 minutes including intermission to Dec. 3 nightly at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday. Tickets are $28 and $23 at 902-420-7070 or easternfronttheatre.com.