Review: The Killdeer (Alumnae Theatre Company)

The Killdeer Alumnae Theatre

A more lyrical take on murder mystery theatre with The Killdeer in Toronto

The Killdeer, by James Reaney, opened on Friday night at Alumnae Theatre.  The play revolves around a murder mystery but it’s much more than that. It’s about small towns and gossip, about parents and children and coming of age, about enduring relationships, about love and jealousy, all timeless themes.

The Killdeer was Reaney’s earliest play. It was first performed at Alumnae theatre 50 years ago in 1963. There are a few expressions that are dated but for the most part it doesn’t matter when it’s set.

The language alternates between poetry and vernacular. Sometimes it reminded me of Shakespeare. It took me a while to get used to it, to understand that it was poetry. It wasn’t until the second act – there are three acts – that I stopped noticing the switch.

The first act seemed to lack energy. Some of actors didn’t seem to be in touch with the rhythm of the dialogue. It did pick up a bit after two of the characters started sipping (swilling) elderberry wine. The saving grace was Tricia Brioux’s performance as Madame Fay and Blythe Haynes as Rebecca Lorimer Fay.

Early in the second act everything changed. During the scene between Harry Gardner (Paul Hardy) and his about-to-be ex-wife Vernelle Gardner (Joanne Sarazen) you could almost see the electricity, the energy between the audience and the stage. I started to care what happened to the characters. For the rest of the play I was operating on two levels, appreciating the beauty of the language, and trying to figure out who the murderer was and mentally cheering on the characters.

Alumnae is an amateur theatre company and in Toronto that’s a much easier thing to be than it is in a small town. There are a lot of talented theatre people looking for opportunities to practice their craft. Sometimes it means that performances may not be as tight as you may expect. It also means that there are larger casts, a nice change from some of the very lean productions we see.

The Killdeer is a long play at two and a half hours. Plays were a lot longer 50 years ago. I always think of them as ‘olden day’ plays when the audience wanted to get their money’s worth. There are characters we wouldn’t get to see – or to see in such depth – in a modern play.

The two that stayed in my mind are Naomi Vondell as Mrs. Soper, the jailer’s wife. Her performance was lyrical, she seemed to be floating, almost ethereal. The other is Michael Vitorovich as Mr Manatee, the terrifying hangman.

I enjoyed The Killdeer – much more than I expected to given the slow start.


  • The Killdeer is playing at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley Street) until April 27th, 2013
  • Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm
  • Ticket prices: Wednesday – 2 for 1, Thursday to Saturday #20.00, Sunday pwc (Cash only – no credit or debit cards)
  • Tickets are available at the box office and by phone at 416-364-4170

Photo of Paul Hardy and Peter Higginson by Dahlia Katz