Fall on Your Knees: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Literary Classic Comes Alive in New Stage Adaptation

Fall on Your Knees

Amaka Umeh, one of the stars of 'Fall on Your Knees Part One: Family Tree'. Photo: Lorne Bridgman

An epic saga deserves a mythic theatre adaptation, and the page-to-stage story of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s bestselling 1996 debut novel Fall on Your Knees is nothing short of heroic.

About 10 years ago on a walk in the park, MacDonald’s wife, theatre director Alisa Palmer, asked what she thought about making her multgenerational tale about the Piper clan into a play. “I initially imagined it was an opera, something much more abstract,” Palmer says in an interview at a café near their Toronto home. “She was game for me to try. She didn’t want to take on writing it, because it was too close, and also, she had been writing novels.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Palmer, who juggled work on the play with other productions, as well as her duties as an artistic director at the National Theatre School in Montreal, reached out to playwright Hannah Moscovitch, and they began building it, piece by piece, layering music, images and movement onto the text. After a $200,000 grant from the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund in 2019 and several 2022 workshops, the two-part play opened at Toronto’s Canadian Stage on Jan. 20. After it closes there on Feb. 4, it travels to Neptune Theatre in Halifax (Feb. 10 to March 5), the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (March 8-25) and the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. (March 29 to April 2). Palmer and Moscovitch spent years labouring over the adaptation of the 592-page novel about love, sin and redemption among the dysfunctional Piper family, which is threaded through with Gaelic folk songs, jazz and opera, set in Cape Breton, First World War battlefields and New York, and has a large cast of characters.



“It has to sort of die to one form to be born in another,” says Palmer. “It’s not a musical. It’s not a play. It’s a piece of theatre that has peoples’ bodies and souls and songs [in it].”

MacDonald, a trained actor and playwright who won a 1990 Governor General’s drama award for Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), started writing Fall on Your Knees as a play, but it morphed into a novel that became a national bestseller, won several awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best first book and propelled MacDonald to what she has called “an American level of nuclear fame” when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in 2002.

As a consultant on the play, MacDonald was “a font of wisdom and affirmation,” says Palmer. When the author saw a music workshop, “I got choked up, because I thought, ‘Oh, God, [the story] is still urgent,’” MacDonald said in an interview at Toronto’s Heliconian Club, as she was promoting her latest novel, Fayne. “It’s still important.’”


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