Thousand Islands Playhouse, Gananoque
The trip to Gananoque, or Ganawage, or Cadanocqui, or one of the myriad other spellings throughout its long history, has an inauspicious beginning. Designated Travel Companion (DTC) gets stuck in a jam on the 401, the cause of which is long cleared by the time she passes. The wait gives me time to thoroughly investigate the commuter parking lot just off the highway (FYI: uninspiring) but also to muse on one of the benefits of a day trip by car: the ability to pack unrestrainedly for unpredictable weather. Today there were sarcastic comments about “polar vortices” on my Facebook feed, and I fished out a pair of tall boots usually reserved for autumn. There is rain in the forecast and we will be walking along the waterfront, so I have dressed in three layers and brought along a bag full of additional wardrobe options should the weather become even more changeable than expected.
But the somber skies and the delay can’t dampen the enthusiasm of DTC. She arrives at my car door with a big smile, an umbrella, a raincoat and a pashmina, ready for any and all eventualities. Except maybe a surprise boat tour into American waters for which a passport is needed. I cross that off the list.
As we finally shimmy down the Macdonald–Cartier Freeway, I point out the climate controls on the dashboard and explain the rules of the road, which have been refined over the course of eight prior excursions. The DTC:
– may use the dual temperature control to alter the temperature on her side of the car
– may redirect the vents on her side
– may not increase/decrease the fan speed
– may not turn off the a/c if the a/c is on
– may not turn on the a/c if the a/c is off
– must never imitate the voice of the Google Maps lady
Gananoque is a town of 5200 whose population swells with “Islanders”—cottagers on the Thousand Islands—during the summer months. It’s just a half hour past Kingston so we’re there pretty quickly. We park on the main drag and pop into The Socialist Pig to plot our afternoon. The coffeehouse is an eclectic space in the former Gananoque Spring and Axle Company building, and a King St. fixture for the last four years. The bar is made of highly polished wood beams supported by hardcover books stacked higgledy piggledy, one atop the other. A gleaming Elektra Crema Caffe espresso machine emits a soft yellow glow, all chrome and retro styling. It’s so pretty, I barely resist stroking a finger along its perfect shininess. The back wall is a painted black chalkboard, the drinks list cohabitating with pithy quotes.
I’m excited to see a Flat White on the espresso menu, my coffee of choice during a recent trip abroad and an option I’ve not yet seen in North America. So there’s no question what I’m having. DTC selects a pot of peppermint tea from the list which the owner rhymes off from memory. We take a corner table so we can admire Town Hall across the street, and we spy a woman in a winter jacket clutching a German language travel guide. She’s one up on me—I didn’t pack any down.
We take a quick stroll along the downtown to admire the architecture of the historic buildings and to window-shop at a host of antique stores. We find the Gananoque and the Thousand Islands Visitor’s Centre, one of the finest I’ve ever seen. They offer free wi-fi, public washrooms, a children’s room with colouring books, and sell tickets for a host of local attractions. There are even Muskoka chairs on the front porch where one may plan next steps or maybe just lounge and people watch.
We move next door to Confederation Park to view “Canada’s largest outdoor contemporary art exhibit”. Straddling the Gananoque River on the former site of the Jones Shovel Company, the Sculpture Park is a lovely place for a stroll along the winding pathways. I’m particularly taken with Bruce Mellon’s Great Blue Heron.
We are late to return to the car and our expired meter. I fully expect a parking ticket, but there is none. Instead, there are still 20 minutes remaining; someone has pumped in another quarter and topped up my time. Neighbourly.
Onwards to the Arthur Child Heritage Museum. It is exactly what you hope for in a small-town museum. Upstairs is a well-appointed exhibit on local history, the mining, lumbering and milling that took place here, and Gananoque’s importance in the forwarding industry. There is a wheelhouse exhibit, artifacts, and a stuffed beaver. “Beavers are a lot less cute close up,” DTC observes. The taxidermied mammal, all yellowed teeth and dangerous claws, has a Please Do Not Touch sign on it. Yeah, no problem.
But it’s a temporary exhibit downstairs, tucked away in a back room, that steals my heart. A small sign over the door announces “100 Years: Remembering World War 1”. It’s a moving tribute to sacrifices made. Of the many men who marched out of Gananoque in 1914, most did not return home until 1919; 83 never returned at all. There are display cases with brief biographies of some of the soldiers, their portraits and personal effects—a uniform, a pocket watch, medals—laid out to see.
DTC pulls my attention to a large, framed group photo of the 3rd. Battery – 1st Brigade taken just before their deployment to France. Each soldier is named, rank given. In the corner of the photo is a grim legend so one may decipher which soldiers were killed in action, which were wounded, gassed or kept as a prisoner of war.
The gravestone rubbing of W.E. Dailey is there, with a small note correcting an error; he died at the age of 15, not 16 as incorrectly engraved. He had lied about his age in order to join. On the tombstone, there is a maple leaf at the top, the details of his rank and battalion, the date of his death. At the bottom it says simply “Mother’s Darling”.
The Watermark Restaurant is a beautiful room overlooking the river in The Gananoque Inn & Spa. It’s a little too damp to be outside on the patio, so we are seated in a corner overlooking the harbour. The room is comfortable and chic, with white linen, lit votives, and vases of blue hydrangeas on the tables. There’s a fun cocktail menu, but DTC and I are directed to Naughty Otter Lager by our server, Hannah, who says it’s made on Main Street by Gananoque Brewing Company. I’m not a regular beer drinker, and so certainly no connoisseur, but this is the exact right thing to be drinking after a day in the drizzle. It is cold and refreshing and not heavy but hoppy. These are good beer things for a neophyte. By a third of my way through the pint, I may be a convert.
Tour boats return to port, marking the half hour regular as clockwork. The sun starts to sink, the light playing across the water, as my appetizer appears. It is quite honestly the prettiest salad I have ever laid eyes on. And delicious. The sweetness of the watermelon is offset by the bite of the feta and vinaigrette, with a little peppery kick from thin slices of purple radish. The mains that follow, my perfectly pink lamb chops and DTC’s pan-fried pickerel, leave us satiated and happy and yet, somehow, we are gently nudged into dessert (key lime verrine, chocolate mousse, thankyouverymuch) and two hours pass and suddenly it’s coming up on show time.
It’s a bit of a rush to the theatre, which is unfortunate. It gives me only a passing opportunity to take in the lower level lobby which is top to bottom wood and wonderful, and hints strongly at its origins. The 359 seat Springer Theatre is housed in what was formerly the Gananoque Canoe Clubhouse, built in 1909. With the smaller Firehall Theatre next door, Thousand Islands Playhouse is producing eight plays over five months this season; it’s considered one of the top five summer festivals in Ontario.
The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is Oscar Wilde’s most popular, most enduring work. This satire of Victorian-era values and hypocrisy is so full of devastatingly clever Wilde-isms (Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”), it’s a relief that the actors clearly cherish the lines with which they have been furnished. Each epigram is a gem; to miss even a single word would be unfortunate. Indeed, esteemed poet W.H. Auden called the play “a pure verbal opera.”
The luxe costumes, with bustles and ruffles and extravagant hats, lend an air of wealth and privilege. The set, too, suggests a life of ease and affluence and just enough inactivity for ennui to creep in. There are two fantastic set changes between acts which have been choreographed like a formal dance. The actors, in character, shift chairs and tables in time to the music. Five panels, used to suggest walls, are spun in unison to reveal a new panel. A sudden dropout of music and a snap of lighting, and we’re onto the next act. Both times, this delightful dance was met with applause from the audience.
This production is grounded in really terrific performances; all are exactly as you would hope—ostentatious, luxurious line deliveries in perfectly plummy tones; light-footed frolicking around the set, with people alighting and dismounting from the settee as they battle wits. But it’s the delightfully weird characterization of Reverend Chasuble by Jody Richardson that is so utterly unexpected and awkward, all elbows and knees and stutters, I laugh every time he opens his mouth. He steals the show.
Gananoque is a town in constant motion—easy motion, not bustling; languid like the water that flows along the St. Lawrence at its southern boundary. Cars and people stream at a regular pace along the main street, the leisurely boat traffic from the islands, to town, and back again, everything in slow, simple locomotion. Even the layout of the Sculpture Park forces you up the bank of the river, across the footbridge, and down the other side. Maybe it’s an unconscious reaction to the inescapable quiet of winter, when the river freezes and boat traffic ceases, summer cottagers long gone for home.
So, amid all the movement, it’s a surprise to find little pockets of hushed stillness here and there. At the town centre, we thrill to the rush of water over the rapids, all white and yellow foam travelling out of the Gananoque River to the Seaway. But above the dam, a placid pool reflecting the trees and houses and grey sky; serene enough that a leaping fish leaves concentric circles in its wake. I watch for a minute.
And again, down by Mill St., it’s tranquil even though the phalanx of boats suggests a great deal of activity. The river here is brown and as quiet as the church whose reflection is caught in the mirror of the water. An older gentlemen glides by in a canoe, lifts a slow hand in greeting.
During the play intermission, when we step out to the long deck at the back of the theatre and stretch our legs, the view is inky black. Only the lights of a passing tour boat and the scent of fish suggest we are overlooking the St. Lawrence, one of the greatest rivers on the continent. I am sure the water is moving, I know it of course, but in the darkness, I imagine a still surface, silent and mysterious, keeping guard while the Islanders sleep.
Anne Heathcote—writer, roadtripper, theatre lover—is counting her blessings in Prince Edward County.