Theatre by the Bay has struck a chord with its latest play, Mary of Shanty Bay. The play follows the journals Mary O’Brien wrote about her life as one of the first Europeans to settle on land east of Barrie. At that time, the early 1800s, Barrie consisted of only a few log buildings.
“This was like the edge of the world- there was nothing there,” said Alex Dault, Theatre by the Bay (TBTB) artistic director. “They were the first people to settle there – (only) First Nations were there before them. Mary’s diary tells the story of how it happened and the challenges.”
Mary O’Brien made an appearance as a minor character in another TBTB play, Nine Mile Portage, several years ago. The unique theatrical and historical walking experience along Barrie’s waterfront marked the beginning of TBTB’s success merging local history and theatre.
Leah Holder, who met Dault on the first day of theatre school, collaborated on that project and acted in the show. She made a real connection to Mary, so much so that she read her journals and was inspired to turn her story into a play.
The timing was right, as this year St. Thomas Anglican Church marks its 180th anniversary. The O’Brien family was instrumental in building the church. In fact, the “rammed earth” construction was similar to buildings in Mary’s husband’s home country, Ireland. As the church is one of the few remaining structures made that way in Ontario, it will soon be designed a heritage landmark.
When Mary came to Canada in 1828, she was Mary Sophia Gapper. She traveled to visit her brother and sister who were living in Thornhill. This connection and a love interest she met on the ship will be revealed in the play.
Descendants of Mary and Lt.-Col. Edward O’Brien still live in the community, including a groundskeeper at the church. One of their children, Lucius O’Brien, grew up to become a famous Canadian artist.
Mary of Shanty Bay features a cast of four actors. Leah Holder will play Mary.
Last year she directed We Must Have More Men! Barrie and the Great War, a play she was also instrumental in developing. Holder has spent so much time acting, directing and writing plays in and about Barrie, she feels like she has adopted this city.
Born in New Brunswick, Holder acquired a degree in English and history from St. Thomas University in Fredericton and then went to George Brown College for theatre. She has been attracted to the theatre since her grandmother took her to see in a high school production of Macbeth – her cousin was in it.
Mary of Shanty Bay unfolds at St. Thomas Anglican Church, 28 Church St., Shanty Bay. Performances run May 25 to June 10, with previews May 23-24. Performance times vary. Tickets are available at www.theatrebythebay.com
Photo: Mary of Shanty Bay tells the story of one of the first settlers in the village. Adrienne Callan photo.