Tempting Providence comes to Gateway Theatre
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings has done what few Canadian actors can match. The Newfoundland actor has performed the same role 463 times—not including rehearsals—and given a script life no one thought it would have.
In some ways, Gillard-Rowlings was born to play the role, which she'll reprise again next week in Tempting Providence, a Theatre Newfoundland Labrador production opening a two-week run at Gateway Theatre Feb. 3.
Gillard-Rowlings is Myra Bennett, a nurse who moved from her home in England following the First World War to Newfoundland to provide the only medical services along the province's rural northern coast.
Originally intending to stay for only two years, the nurse known as the Florence Nightingale of the North, never left. She delivered more than 700 babies, extracted over 3,500 teeth and performed operations on her kitchen table by lamplight.
Gillard-Rowlings read Robert Chafe's script once it was finished and desperately wanted to be in it. She landed the role for the 2002 premiere and has been with the show—which has travelled the globe—ever since. No one expected the show to have the life that it has had, she said.
"We have discovered through our travels that the story of Tempting Providence is a universal one," she said. "A story of community, pride of place and survival together against great odds. It's a story that anyone can relate to."
She grew up with her own family's stories of battling the elements in order to survive and would frequently drive past Bennett's house. Stories of rural nurses were familiar to her since her grandparents served as caretakers of a rural hospital for many years, giving her plenty of material to draw on when creating the character of Myra Bennett.
Fifteen performances are scheduled for Gateway Theatre. The "highly portable play" will then travel to Ontario and Nova Scotia before spending a summer on the road touring 70 rural communities on the island of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Why does this character appeal to you?
"Myra Bennett was a strong, driven and dedicated person who made a positive difference in the lives of many people. She is an inspiration. The fact that she was an actual person made the role appealing, as well, because it added an extra challenge.
"Trying to depict a real person took a lot of footwork research-wise and added a new level of pre-performance nerves, as her children sat in the audience on opening night. She had a hugely productive life, dedicated to improving the health of others. I greatly respect her and am humbled by what she accomplished. Having the opportunity to represent such a woman and tell her story is an honour."
How difficult was the role to sink into?
"Sinking into the role was exciting and terrifying. Many considered Myra to be harsh and unfeeling. She was highly practical and worked hard to keep her emotions close and contained, to be professional. Most of the stories I heard about her, from the family and the people in the communities she served, depicted a very stoic woman, driven, practical, very composed and not overly effusive. She was a hard nut to crack.
"It also didn't help that a lot of her family were going to see the play and I had talked to them directly while researching the character. The need for me to not only bring Robert's script to life, but also try to emulate the woman herself seemed impossible and I have never before or since been as nervous as I was in the dressing room on the first opening night."
Why does Myra care so much for the people of Newfoundland?
"The people were, at first, her patients, the same as any other with their own brand of home remedies and superstitions. As she began to make her life in Daniel's Harbour and she started to depend upon the inhabitants, as they depended on her, it became a labour of love. She often accepted vegetables fish and in one instance hand-lathed table legs as payment for her services.
"She dedicated her entire life to service of others. The reason she was so driven is a question I cannot answer. I think she felt it was her duty to share her skills. Her duty as a person and as a Christian to improve the lives of others any way she could."
How well known is this story in Newfoundland?
"Her story is fairly well known in Newfoundland, and since we have been touring the play it is becoming more familiar to all. I know that one of the Newfoundland culture texts for the high school curriculum had a story depicting her life. As well, there is a documentary about her life... There is a book by Graham Green, Don't Have Your Baby in the Dory and she has been interviewed by Peter Gzowski, so there is no excuse for any Newfoundlander not having heard the story of this exemplary woman."
Do people like Myra still exist in the world?
"I certainly hope people like Myra Bennett still exist in the world. You don't have to look very far to see them caring for seniors in retirement homes. Home care workers, overworked and underpaid nurses, Doctors Without Borders—and anyone who dedicates their lives to the work of helping others—fit the criteria.
"Whether or not in our modern society a bag of potatoes would serve as payment for a tooth extraction anymore, I am not sure, but I have to believe there are still those in the world whose main concern and life's goal is improving the welfare of others, as was Myra Bennett's."
Tempting Providence by Robert Chafe
•Feb. 2 to 18 (Opening Night Friday, Feb. 3) at Gateway Theatre
•Starring Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, Robert Wyatt Thorne, Willow Kean and Darryl Hopkins; directed by Jillian Keiley
•Tickets, $30 to $47, at gatewaytheatre.com or at the Gateway Box Office: 604-270-1812
•A Theatre Newfoundland Labrador production