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BWW Review: HEAVEN Charms the Citadel Theatre



BWW Review: HEAVEN Charms the Citadel Theatre

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many African-American families escaped the deep south's racial turmoil, relocating to Canada to start new lives. By 1910, approximately 300 men, women, and children settled 170 kilometres north of Edmonton, forming the tight-knit rural community christened Amber Valley in 1931. It is there that Heaven, the Citadel Theatre's new production, takes place. Written by Cheryl Foggo and directed by Patricia Darbasie, the production follows Charlotte (Helen Belay), a newly-arrived schoolteacher. Leaving behind not only St. Catharines but her doctor husband, Charlotte is prepared for the chatter of town gossips and the daunting task of starting fresh in a new town. What she doesn't anticipate are raging March blizzards, accidentally angering a mama bear, and forming a tentative friendship with her widowed neighbour, Ezra (Anthony Santiago).

As Charlotte, Helen Belay shines from the moment she first arrives onstage. Whether bantering with her co-star or panicking at being snowed in, Belay beautifully embodies her character's determination and dignity. Likewise, Santiago is captivating as Ezra, engaging both Charlotte and the audience with his gruff but lovable persona. He masterfully showcases Ezra's emotional journey, his tough-as-nails facade eventually hinting glimmers of humour and glimpses of the good-natured man he was before his wife's death. Together, both performers share a palpable chemistry, bringing to life their characters' cautious friendship as it blossoms into something more. Belay and Santiago are impeccable in their delivery of Foggo's dynamic script, which could perhaps have been extended another 10 to 15 minutes to tie up a dangling loose end.

Every strong period piece needs an intriguing sense of place, and Heaven's creative team delivers. Whittyn Jason's set is simple but effective, primarily featuring the snug one-room interior of Charlotte's home. Notable props include a potbellied iron stove, 1930s telephone, and Charlotte's much-loved gramophone. These props are almost like characters unto themselves, enabling Belay to interact with them during her solo scenes and to let her character's portrayal shine through her use of facial expressions and body language. The only misplaced element is the copse of branches suspended from the stage ceiling above the set of the roofless house, giving the illusion that Charlotte's house is open to the elements. Other notable creative elements include Kiidra Duhault's immersive sound design and Jeff Osterlin's haunting light projections evoking flurries of snowflakes.

Heaven runs at the Citadel's Shoctor Theatre until August 15. Social distancing measures are in place, and staff strongly recommend that all patrons wear masks. A filmed version of the production will soon be available to purchase and stream from the Citadel's website.

Photo Credit: From the Citadel production of Heaven, featuring Helen Belay and Anthony Santiago. Set and Prop design by Whittyn Jason. Costume Design by Leona Brausen.

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