In Review: The Land of Beauty, a smash hit for Saint John Playwright Bet O’Toole

Tags: Saint John Theatre Company, play, local theatre

Carolyn Trecartin

6/9/2022 4 min read

Last night, many people packed into the upstairs BMO Studio Theatre in the heart of Uptown Saint John to see the premiere of The Land of Beauty. It was written by Saint John playwright Bet O’Toole, who also stared as Goldie, the play’s lead.

This is O’Toole’s second full-length play. The first, Lily’s Song, came out in 2008 and showed at the Imperial Theatre. It was based on O’Toole’s late mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

The Land of Beauty is about a crazy old woman – Goldie – who lives alone up on a hill, sequestered from society. At the beginning of the play, a reporter comes to town. She’s from the area but just moved back home after kicking off her journalism career in Toronto. The reporter is named Melissa and is played by Kailey LeBlanc. Upon arriving, Melissa is looking for locals to write about when she sees a kite being carried off into the sunset by helium balloons. With the help of a local couple, Ralph and Evelyn – played by Dewayne Keating and Laura Bassett – Melissa learns that Goldie releases these kites once a month in memory of her late daughter.

If your inner environmentalist is freaking out a bit here – don’t worry, we learn in the second act that Goldie uses biodegradable balloons.

Melissa tracks down the misunderstood recluse, and we see a friendship develop between the two. As Melissa begins to peel away the layers that Goldie has built up as a defense mechanism, we begin to understand her past and how she came to be the way she is.

This dramatic play offers the audience plenty of comedic relief, along with hope and inspiration.

All of the actors did fantastic work. Kelli Wray played Hester, Goldie’s estranged sister, who we don’t meet until the second act. Hester is a rich city bitch, so it seems at first, but Wray brings to life this incredibly human and compassionate character. Seriously, kudos to Wray for her stellar performance last night.

The most shocking detail about the play is that it took O’Toole over ten years to get it on stage. She said in a Q&A following the performance that “It’s really hard to get your work out there if [production companies] don’t know your name.” She credits Stephen Tobias and the Saint John Theatre Company for supporting Maritime playwrights through Script Happens – the local playwright and script development competition in its 20th year.

I personally love Script Happens performances because you’re guaranteed something new. We all love to see the tales we know and love performed at Main Stage performances but it is refreshing to see the more modern-day material that Script Happens provides.

O’Toole said she had submitted The Land of Beauty to competitions previously, and it did very well. Through this process, her work developed some high caliber fans who took it upon themselves to mentor O’Toole. One was celebrated Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy, who mentored O’Toole for two years to get The Land of Beauty to where it is today. The other is former artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick, Thomas Morgan Jones. Jones and Murphy helped O’Toole establish an active voice in her story telling, and develop more thorough character plots which would help take her work to the next level.

O’Toole said she hopes the audience sees this as an inspirational play, one she hopes will leave the audience contemplating other people’s hurts and traumas and how that affects how they perceive the world. “We all live and see things through our own boxes. Our pasts shape the boxes we see things through and people with past traumas are seeing the world through their weathered and discoloured boxes.”

The Land of Beauty is directed by Dean Turner. O’Toole said Turner was an incredible director to work with. He had seen the play through its various draft forms and was thrilled to help bring it in front of an audience for the first time last night. Turner handled the delicate task of directing the playwright in her acting role with sensitivity and made sure that O’Toole’s vision for her play was brought to life how she envisioned it.

The Land of Beauty continues to show live performances tonight, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm at the BMO Studio Theatre. Get your live performance ticket for only 20 bucks (15 for students)! Or, if you too prefer to stay home like the play’s protagonist, you can get yourself a streaming ticket on either Friday or Saturday nights for only $15! Gotta love the SJTC for keeping ticket prices accessible. See you at the theatre!