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Opening the Centaur Theatre Company’s new season, Paradise by the River sheds light on the shameful moment in this country’s past when thousands of Italian-Canadians were interned in prisoner of war camps during World War II without charge on the mere suspicion that they were fascists.
Alternating between scenes in Montreal and the Petawawa prison camp, this play makes it implicit that while many Canadians went overseas to fight a war, a battle for justice was raging right here at home.
The play focuses on the central character of Romano (played by Rossi himself), who lives a decent life along with his pregnant wife Maria (Tara Nicodemo) in their small Ville Émard apartment. About to make it big in the construction industry, Romano is at odds with his brother-in-law Bruno (Henry Gauthier) whom he chooses not to involve in the business side of his company over his own brother Cenzo (Guido Cocomello), just settling in after coming over from Italy.
Everything gets thrown into turmoil, however, when Mussolini allies himself with Hitler and Canada suddenly finds itself at war with Italy as well.
Along with many others, Romano is arrested and sent to Petawawa. At the prison camp, Romano meets other Italians from elsewhere in Canada of varying political leanings. Back at home, his wife and brother try to pick up the pieces of their broken lives and come to the slow realization that Romano may have been set up.
A true Montreal story, the play liberally alternates between French, Italian and English, all well-delivered thanks to the earnest writing of Rossi who here, as he has done in the past, draws on his own experience to create these rounded and realistic characters.
As an actor, Rossi teams up well with Cocomello. Together, they portray two sides to a fraternal coin with Rossi capturing serenity, grace and wisdom and Cocomello nailing down more youthful passion and fiery intensity.
Making use of rotating set pieces and projected imagery, the set, designed by Vincent Lefèvre, perfectly complements the frequently shifting action of this play, helping to quicken the pace of this production which runs over two hours.
Director Joel Miller does a fine job containing all the action and accomplishes the unenviable task of spotlighting each character individually while still making the play seem like an overall ensemble effort.
While this play deals with events past, it remains entirely relevant today as Italians all over the country await some form of formal apology from the government. Although Bill C-302, recognizing the injustice done to Italian-Canadians during this time, was passed last April in the House of Commons, it must still be ratified by Canadian Senate.
This review first appeared in The Suburban in October 2009.