Those Who Wait

Review by Sean McQuaid

West Moon
Watermark Theatre, North Rustico
October 28, 2023

I’d heard of West Moon­—one of the few stage plays penned by storied Newfoundland poet, author and academic Al Pittman (1940-2001)—but I’d neither read it nor seen it before ACT revived it this fall at the Watermark. It’s as if the cemetery bits from Our Town (1938) got their own play, only spookier—like a supersized, Atlantic Canadian episode of The Twilight Zone

Whatever it is, it works. Emotionally lush, linguistically ornate and aptly haunting, Pittman’s West Moon is a reverent yet oft-playful elegy for the dead, for a dying community, and for a vanishing way of life. 

First performed in 1980 and published in 1995, West Moon is set in 1965 at a cemetery in St. Kevin’s, a tiny, isolated Newfoundland fishing outport, during that era’s resettlement strategy (a favourite subject of Pittman’s) when Joey Smallwood’s government was pressuring people to move out of smaller villages and into larger towns so services could be more centralized. 

The supernatural twist: once a year on “All Souls’ Night” (November 2), the people buried in this cemetery become conscious, remembering their old lives and eager to learn whatever they can about the world they left behind – but this year, the cemetery’s recently deceased residents bring disturbing revelations about the fate of St. Kevin’s. 

As the ACT production’s lavishly detailed program notes, it’s a story with resonance for PEI, where smaller communities have shrunk through consolidation and migration for decades. Raised in petite Poplar Point and educated in nearby Dundas at a school since demolished, I know a little about that myself; the play’s sense of nostalgia and loss hits close to home. 

West Moon recalls some of the better Twilight Zone ghost stories, like the elegiac end-of-an-era aspects of “The Passersby” (1961) or the Wilder-esque belated appreciation of life’s everyday wonders in “A Passage for Trumpet” (1960)—but the episode Pittman’s play echoes most eerily is “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (1961), with its strangers trapped in a bleak, mysterious limbo. Pittman’s talking corpses face a similar mix of confusion and despair, pondering whether they face literal damnation—and if so, why? 

It’s genuinely chilling, but this isn’t just a spook show. Part haunted house, part loving time capsule, Pittman’s story paints vivid pictures of both people and place as it marks their collective passing, doing so with warmth, compassion and mercifully leavening humour. 

A disembodied voice manifests occasionally as an omniscient narrator, allowing Pittman to flex his poetic muscles with elegant evocations of the play’s rural coastal landscape, with its “quick-silver, looking-glass sea” enveloped in the “eternal darkness” of an outport night. 

Director Brian Collins has done Pittman’s superb script commendable justice. Largely static blocking restricts each performer to their own cemetery plot (as Pittman’s stage directions intended), and Pam Jewell’s costuming is all suitably funereal attire. Cyril Armstrong’s fittingly drab, craggy set doesn’t quite read clearly as a cemetery on its own but captures the feel and contours of such a place in a vaguely impressionistic way, while Acting Badly’s light and sound help set a creepy mood and clarify some paranormal storytelling beats. 

On stage together for the whole show, Collins’ cast—Brian Matthie, Shelley Tamtom, Gordon Cobb, Brielle Hunter, Gavin Hall, Laura Stapleton, Mike Peters, Kelly Mullaly, Richard Haines and Nick van Ouwerkerk—are not only good actors but also fine reactors, often engaged by each other’s activity. They’re interesting to watch, often understatedly genuine, sometimes deeply moving and frequently very funny—Stapleton, Mullaly, Cobb & Peters especially excel at finding the laughs, though Cobb (also one of the abler pathos-miners of the bunch) seems briefly adrift script-wise at one point. 

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town opines that perhaps only saints and poets truly understand the joys of living; with the wit and wisdom of West Moon, poet Pittman makes a powerful argument that Wilder was right.