Thursday Theatre Review: The Real McCoy

Factory Theatre's production of The Real McCoy tells the story of Elijah McCoy, inventor of the lubricating cup for steam locomotives. And, it is said that with this invention came the expression 'the real McCoy', because if you didn't have his patented contraption on your train, it was liable to break down or explode or do something similarly calamitous.

When the show made its first pass through Toronto last year, it garnered some impressive reviews. All of this begs the important, if somewhat hackneyed, question: is The Real McCoy, in fact, the real McCoy? Is it a good piece of theatre?

The answer, for the most part, is yes. This is a very good play with some very good performances. Maurice Dean Wint does a fine job as Elijah McCoy, bringing both a quiet dignity and a genuine warmth to his performance. Playing a variety of roles, Ordena Stephens -Thompson displays a huge physical and emotional range. And Kevin Hanchard's portrayal of both a young McCoy and Don Bodie deserves special recognition. His energy is infectious, and when he's not on stage you find yourself quietly hoping for his return.

The Real McCoy is also well produced. The stripped-down set and sound design is effective, and there's some nice moments of innovative stagecraft. However, the production suffers from some noisy and overwrought scene changes. Since these usually happen while the actors are speaking, the transitions can be a little distracting. But all is forgiven in the finale, when director Andrew Moodie creates one of the most beautiful visual moments I've seen on a Toronto stage this year.

The real strength of this production is Andrew Moodie's excellent script. The Real McCoy is a fascinating exploration of both the clash of traditionalism and modernity during the industrial revolution, and of humankind's futile struggle against the inevitability of death, decay and choas. McCoy's blind faith in the ability of science to conquer uncertainty and death is powerfully transposed against his many personal tragedies, and the strength of his scientific convictions make his ultimate surrender all the more powerful. The play is a variation on the old 'you can't fight city hall' theme, although in this case, city hall is the implacable and destructive power of the second law of thermodynamics. Chaos may be inevitable, but how we choose to face that chaos defines us as humans.

The Real McCoy is also notable for its sophisticated handling of race. McCoy was a Canadian-born black man in late nineteenth century America. Obviously, institutionalized and casual racism was a huge part of his life. But Moodie never lets his characters be defined by the racism that surrounds them, or lets them devolve into political abstractions. Racism is a force that seethes arounds the borders of the action, variously challenging and driving the characters onstage. But these are people first, and Moodie is more intent on exploring their internal contradictions than writing a sociological tract.

If you missed The Real McCoy last February, make sure you catch it this time around. It's a great show. And I'm going to end the review here, before I make another 'real McCoy' reference.

The Real McCoy plays at The Factory Theatre until November 4th. Tickets are available at 416 504 9971 or online.

Photo: Maurice Dean Wint and Ordena Stephens-Thompson. By Ed Gass-Donnelly.

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