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Play explores war fallout and fears

SECOND WORLD WAR: Adrian Gorrissen, left, and Chris Coculuzzi rehearse a scene in which their characters discuss the fallout from Canada's declaration of war on Italy. (Philip Alves/Vaughan Today)

It’s 1940 and the war in Europe continues to escalate.

Fearing sabotage and treason on Canadian soil, the federal government begins detaining some of its own people based on nothing more than suspicion.

Paradise by the River – The Story of Petawawa is the tale of one Italian-Canadian Montrealer caught in that hysteria.

The play, written a decade ago by Montreal native and first-generation Canadian Vittorio Rossi, is set to make its Ontario debut Nov. 13 at the City Playhouse.

Paradise by the River, at the end of the day, is a family drama,” Rossi said last Monday from Montreal. “It depicts a married couple who are in love with each other and then torn apart by the sudden arrest of the husband and we see how they cope.”

Soon after Canada’s declaration of war with Italy in the Second World War, Romano Dicenzo, played by Chris Coculuzzi, is arrested without charge as the federal government tries to stamp out any perceived subversive threats. He’s shipped to an internment camp in Petawawa, Ont.

His pregnant wife Maria, played by Alex Karolyi, can only watch as police take Romano away.

“What I like about the play is it sort of shows (Maria’s) side of what she’s going through, what the family goes through, but also what he goes through in the camp,” said Karolyi, who’s both acting in and producing Paradise.

“It shows how the characters can overcome adversity at the end, and at the end they have, in my opinion, no animosity towards the government,” she added. “They want to get back to work and get back to building their lives again.”

Though the play is based on historical events, the characters and story are Rossi’s fictional creations.

“One of my friends in the neighbourhood would sometimes talk about how she had a grandfather that had been arrested and put into the camp in Petawawa for merely being one of the organizers of a labour union,” Rossi said. “I was shocked how ignorant I was on that, how I knew very little of it.”

A few years after learning of the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War, he was hired by a local film producer to write about it for a miniseries. The project died in what Rossi called “development hell”.

He took the reams of research he’d already done and penned the stage play.

“I was interested in the script because it was news to me when I read the script,” Karolyi said. “I didn’t know. I had no idea this was a little piece of Canadian history and it’s quite an interesting piece of Canadian history that I wanted to explore further.”

Paradise was produced once before at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre to glowing reviews, Rossi said, and was presented as a staged reading in Cambridge, Mass.

Karolyi’s York Region-based, not-for-profit professional theatre company, Shadowpath Theatre Productions, is behind the play’s Vaughan staging, though the road to the City Playhouse was a rocky one.

Originally scheduled to open at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, construction delays forced Paradise to find a new home. Karolyi turned to the York Catholic District School Board Centre for the Arts at St. Elizabeth CHS in Thornhill.

The theatre’s management turned Paradise aside, she said. That led Karolyi to the City Playhouse and a shorter engagement than she had planned.

“I have to tell you how really encouraged I am … that there are young companies like this that have the courage to tackle not merely this particular play because of its subject matter but just for the fact that it’s a big play,” Rossi said. “I just want to say how admiring I am of this group that they are able to put that all aside and do something big.

“I’m very grateful for that.”

The show’s three performances are set for Nov. 13 at 8 p.m., and Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets — $28 for adults, $25 for seniors and students — are available at the City Playhouse box office and 905-882-SHOW (7469).

Vaughan Today
In print: October 31, 2008, page 15
Online: November 3, 2008 [link]