At a time when many stage comedies are busy lacerating society for its faults, 1949 fills the theatre with the mellowness of a spring thaw. When the play opens it is
March 29, 1949—three days be-
fore Newfoundland is to join Confederation. The date of the union is April 1—April Fool’s Day—a coincidence that is not lost on the Mercers, expatriate Newfoundlanders living in Toronto. Not all of them are looking forward to the absorption of their native island into the larger country. Grandmother Rachel Mercer (Patricia Hamilton), the big, bustling matriarch of the clan, dramatically sports a black armband. She constantly berates her son, Jacob (Michael Hogan), for his complacency over what she sees as a tragic loss of national identity. “Your father built the Newfoundland house
you was bom in,” she tells him. “He knew who he was.” But, to Jacob, Newfoundland has signified mainly poverty: moving to Toronto in 1945 has meant that his two young sons, Ben (Darryl Flatman) and Billy (Zachary Bennett), are regularly getting milk for the first time in their lives.
And so the battle lines are drawn, with the Mercers, their friends and their visitors either taking sides or wandering haplessly through the ensuing confusion in the Mercer home. But 1949 is less concerned than its protagonists with sorting out who is right. Instead, it offers a gentle, constantly forgiving and very funny
revelation of character. French is superb at turning the tables on his audience. Just when Jacob’s brother-in-law, Wiff Roach (Benedict Campbell), has proven himself to be little more than a clown, he suddenly performs an act of astonishing generosity. 1949 is full of such moments, when appearances are swept away to reveal unexpected insights.
The core of the play is Hogan’s immensely likable Jacob. Familiar from French’s other Mercer plays, he is an opinionated, witty, sometimes small-minded but ultimately decent father and husband. His prickliness is beautifully contrasted by Dixie Seatle as his attractive wife, Mary. Their embattled but loving relationship radiates warmth throughout the drama. Although sentimental at times, and weak on dramatic momentum at others, 1949 rises above its flaws because its author’s affection for his characters suffuses every scene.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.