Phelim, an elderly outport fisherman, is harbouring secrets. Painful secrets. Secrets he won’t dare share with just anyone, for fear of his life situation getting worse.
With Phelim as a protagonist, St. Mary’s Bay acting troupe The Puncheon Players sheds light on a form of violence not often spoken about, perhaps because it’s not often recognized — elder abuse.
“It’s very subtle and it’s rarely physical,” director Mary Moylon explained. “It’s mainly the subtraction of little perks in life that cost money, like phone lines.”
This province has an organization, the Newfoundland and Labrador Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, formed in the 1990s with the mandate to raise public awareness of elder abuse.
It describes the abuse as any act or failure to act that jeopardizes the health or well-being of an older person, and although physical assaults are a part of it, the rest are more hidden.
Insults, threats of abandonment, exclusion from decision-making, failure to provide recommended health equipment and treatment like a child are all considered abusive behaviour towards seniors.
One of the most common types of elder abuse is financial, and includes the misuse of power of attorney status, influencing a senior to change their will, the sale of a senior’s home or possessions without legal authority, forging a senior’s signature on cheques or other documents, or otherwise unduly controlling the person’s money.
“The deprivation is the worst, and the lack of financial independence,” Moylon said. “You get the feeling from some elders that there’s something going on, but they can’t talk about it. There needs to be more openness, I think, and hopefully this play will bring it.”
With the help of a grant from the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors program, The Puncheon Players created “Spancel” — a word from the “Dictionary of Newfoundland English” that means to hogtie or limit movement — around the theme of elder abuse.
Moylon wrote the piece after researching the issue and consulting with her doctor, who gave her some insight into the subtleties of the abuse.
It may not be the most obvious theme for a playwright, but Moylon, a native of Cork, Ireland, said the writing just flowed once she had Phelim in place.
“He’s a lovely old man and a gentle soul,” she said. “He’s married for the second time, much to his regret, and he feels trapped in the situation.”
Chris Luther plays the role of Phelim, while other cast members play his wife, daughter, fishing buddy and best friend, a female schoolmate who supports him by giving him food and other things he’s forced to go without at home.
One of Phelim’s passions is music, and both Newfoundland and Irish melodies are woven throughout the play.
A theme song for the production is performed entirely in Irish Gaelic with bodhrans, fiddles, harpsichords, accordions and flutes, and the cast learned to sing the words phonetically.
The troupe debuted “Spancel” in Trepassey and other parts of the Irish Loop last year, which earned it standing ovations and much praise from professionals working with seniors.
The theme also resonated with a surprising number of people, Moylon said.
“People have come to me after the performances and said, ‘My brother is doing this to my father,’” she said. “I had two emergency room nurses come up to me after one of the performances and say, ‘This should be seen everywhere in Canada, because you’ve really nailed it. This is what happens.’
“My daughter cried at the dress rehearsal, and I thought, this is really good, it’s affecting people.”
This is the first play for The Puncheon Players, who formed in 2010. It’s taken a while to organize the production, given the troupe members are spread out from Colinet to Trepassey.
The troupe members are all middle age or older, and most of them have a lot of musical experience but little acting experience.
Luther, a school teacher in his 40s, shines in the lead role, Moylon said, and his performance has had audience members convinced he is actually elderly.
“He does it really well. He really climbs in the character,” she said.
The players are planning to get together with the Newfoundland and Labrador Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, with which they’ve had contact, to talk about other educational projects and ways they can further spread awareness of abuse of seniors.
The troupe isn’t limiting itself to serious productions in the future, but hopes to continue to explore themes relevant to people living in rural communities.
“We have realized there is a need for more serious dramatizations being offered around the Avalon, outside of St. John’s,” Moylon said. “With this in mind, we hope to acquire a theatre in a more culturally neglected area, both to encourage local talent and provide alternatives to tourists who are hungry for more serious theatre.”
The Puncheon Players (Moylon, Luther, Sheila Lee, Judy Brazil, Pat Boland, Catherine Shannon, Mary Hanlon, Joan Power, Patti Mitchell-Corcoran, Mike Waddleton and Mary Fagan) will take “Spancel” to the Festival of the Sea in Waterford, Ireland, this summer, and in the meantime, are bringing it to the LSPU Hall for two performances this weekend — one Saturday at 8 p.m., the other Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $23 plus surcharge, and can be bought at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531 or online at www.rca.nf.ca.
Moylon hopes audience members will leave the theatre enlightened about the signs and effects of elder abuse.
“Maybe people will be more watchful when it comes to elders,” she said.