‘Judge Prowse Presiding’ simple but effective theatre

Review - Robin McGrath

Published on April 3, 2013
A scene from "Judge Prowse Presiding" by Frank Holden staged Monday night by School Zone Productions of St. John's at the Provincial Drama Festival.

Winnie Healey photo

Although the Provincial Drama Festival is a competitive enterprise, a lot of its success depends upon co-operation. Jim Healey, who is the solo actor in “Judge Prowse Presiding,” and Frank Holden, who wrote and directed the play, brought only two stage technicians to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and no set at all.

This necessitated a serious flurry of scrounging for everything from billets to barrels, and help from the staff at the O’Brien Centre and from their competitors in the festival.

Compared to the 16 cast members and dozen-plus technicians that Mokami Players fielded the previous night, “Judge Prowse Presiding” was a pretty Spartan affair, yet it had all the magic and stagecraft that we look for in the theatre. A few lengths of canvas, stretched into tall, white, triangular sails, a scattering of tools and nets and boxes, and suddenly you are transported into a makeshift courtroom in a twine loft in the 1890s.  

The play “Judge Prowse Presiding” has been around since the 1980s, and there are probably few regular theatre-goers in Newfoundland who have not seen a production of it.  However, the play was new and fresh for the Labrador audience, and made newer and fresher for having a fine actor take over the part from author and director Frank Holden.

The play opens with Prowse holding court in a small, unnamed outport.  He calls and hears cases, scolds his assistant, heaps scorn on some of the accused, and intersperses his cases with anecdotes, jokes and even advertisements for his famous “History.” Bit by bit, the monologue becomes less a series of court cases and more a stream of reminiscences, an old man remembering his life and becoming young as he remembers.  

Prowse recalls encounters with wreckers, whores, arsonists, and bootleggers, but also bankers, merchants and governors. He’s hard on the doctors and lawyers, but shows an underlying compassion for the pitiful, poverty-stricken, weak men and women who appear before him.

“Judge Prowse Presiding” doesn’t exactly have a plot, but it does use Prowse’s own life as a framework upon which to hang a portrait of  the country that Newfoundland once was. What you are left with is a sense of a man and a place, both flawed but both interesting and entertaining.

Jim Healey had a confident, comfortable, relaxed presence on stage and he made Prowse his own. A big, bearded, benign-looking man, Healey slipped in and out of his chosen accent only when he meant to, mockingly imitating a St. John’s merchant, a Scotch Methodist matron, a scurrilous thief. With a simple alteration in the way he sat or held his hands in his lap, Healey changed Prowse into a lonely widow just long enough to charm the judge and us.  

“Judge Prowse Presiding” is an idealized portrait of the historic Prowse, who was notoriously bigoted against Jews, Germans, Frenchmen, and almost anyone else who wasn’t a native Newfoundlander, yet as played by Healey, you see the compassion that apparently underlay his often gruff and eccentric exterior.

“Judge Prowse Presiding” had no set-changes or elaborate costumes, no lighting cues, no music other than the simple and sweet voice of the actor, yet it transformed the stage for more than an hour and a half, amusing, entertaining and touching the audience.  

Robin McGrath is a writer and artist living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Her most recent book is "The Birchy Maid."