It’s a beautiful drive to the quiet village of Pontypool, about 100 km northeast of Toronto. Early in the last century, the journey was a summer tradition for many of Toronto’s working-class Jews eager to escape the sweltering city.
Taking a similar route east, you will find this little-known story of Pontypool’s Jewish community brought to life in the 4th Line Theatre’s world premiere production of The Right Road to Pontypool.
The 4th Line is an outdoor theatre situated just south of Millbrook, on the farm property of the company’s artistic director, Robert Winslow. It is an idyllic location, offering an “environmental theatre aesthetic” with a barnyard stage and bleachers for seating. To complete the outdoor experience, it also offers a licensed concession stand with optional order-ahead picnic meals.
But don’t let the natural surroundings fool you; this is no backwoods production. Written by Toronto actor-writer Alex Poch-Goldin and directed by 4th Line veteran Kim Blackwell, the play was commissioned by 4th Line as part of its mandate to foster original, regionally based, historical dramas.
The Right Road to Pontypool traces the history of the Jewish resorts, first started in 1916 by a Pontypool farmer named Moishe Yukle Bernstein. All of the play’s main characters are based on real people.
Bernstein’s granddaughter, Doris Manetta, was born and raised in Pontypool. She spoke extensively with Poch-Goldin as he developed the script. “She was a great source of information, and then eventually, I made her a character in my play,” said the playwright.
According to Manetta, her grandfather bought a 200-acre farm in the centre of Pontypool next to the large pond or “lake” and then, using the Canadian government’s farm quota, he began to bring in Jews from Eastern Europe as farm labourers.
Most of these Jewish immigrants were tailors and cutters by trade. They moved on to Kensington Market, and helped establish the garment district that flourished there. This they did at a time when Toronto beaches were posted with signs prohibiting Jews. One hot summer, a few of them remembered Bernstein’s “lake” in Pontypool.
As word spread, and with a train from Toronto running right into town, Bernstein took the opportunity to start a resort. His son-in-law, Sam Manetta, would follow in his footsteps. Pontypool was a small town in the heart of Protestant Ontario, yet as Doris Manetta remembered from working at her father’s resort, “It was Jewish in the summer.”
It is a fascinating story, but it is Poch-Goldin’s infusion of Jewish culture and humour into the play that gives it life. In the play’s wonderfully cinematic opening, the character of Moishe Yukle Bernstein enters the stage from right out of the landscape. He does not enter our world; we enter his, as the stark black and white costumes, traditional music and dance, and simple props help take us back in time.
Dov Mickelson plays the larger-than-life Moishe Yukle to perfection. This utterly charming character is a joy to watch, and Mickelson knows how to bring just the right mix of humour and pathos to his scenes, dominating the first half of the play.
Two strong leads guide us through the history, in the present-day characters of older Doris, played by Ellen-Ray Hennessy, and cousin Harold, played by Allan Price. Their narration takes the form of playful banter, as their memories are used to ease the scene transitions, and weave in the play’s themes of memory, loss, religion, and political idealism.
In the second half it is young Doris, winningly portrayed by Caitlin Driscoll, who steals our hearts, with her quick wit and keen observations on life. Strong performances from the secondary characters include Marsala Lukianchuk as Rifka Bernstein, Marie Jones as Annie Manetta, and Jordan Kanner as Sam Manetta. Altogether 40 cast members depict 170 different characters through the course of the play, spanning from 1905 to 2005.
On opening night, there was the occasional Yiddish or Irish accent that sounded a little “Canadian,” but this did not detract from the authenticity of the production or the sense of place it imparted. Although the resorts are now all gone, for a few hours it seemed like Pontypool was Jewish again.
The Right Road to Pontypool runs Tuesdays through Saturdays to August 1st, with an added performance on Mon., July 27th. Start time is 6 p.m. Tickets are available from the theatre’s box office by calling 1-800-814-0055, or online at www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.