Local production explores achievements and controversy of Fergus hero

They may not have been professional actors, but their performance said otherwise.

Months of hard work came to fruition on Sept. 25 as the curtains opened at Melville United Church for the volunteer-based production of Surgeon Ahead: The Doctor Groves Story.

Playing three shows last week, the play written and directed by Glen McGinnis was inspired by a Centre Wellington District High School drama tradition. For 31 years, senior students were tasked with researching a relevant person or event from Fergus’ past and then transcribing the information into a script which was then performed by drama students in schools, retirement homes and churches.

“Tonight’s performance is dedicated to the hundreds of students who either wrote scripts or performed in the many shows that were created,” McGinnis inscribed in the program.

One of the most popular characters to be featured in these productions, not surprisingly, was Dr. Abraham Groves,  locally famous for founding Fergus’ hospital and pioneering medical procedures that were considered highly controversial during his time.

Successfully brought to life by Neil Dunsmore, the play chronicles Groves’ life, including his time at medical school in Toronto, his venture into family medicine in Fergus, marriage to his secretary Jennie, played by Megan Thoms-McDougall, and work at the House of Industry in Aboyne.

Cleverly combining comedy, tragedy and a little bit of the macabre, Surgeon Ahead accurately portrays life in rural Ontario during the difficult Victorian period. Though the play is about Groves’ many achievements and the mixed reception his bold methods garnered from industry professionals, friends and colleagues, it did not shy away from the less seemly aspects of his career – including accusations of removing bodies from the Belsyde cemetery for medical experimentation and conducting unnecessary surgery on residents of the “Poor House.”

Dunsmore brought convincing passion to the role, giving a well-rounded look into the doctor’s private and public life. The chemistry between he and Thoms-McDougall was particularly moving, both in their casual banter and later as Jennie slowly dies of consumption.

A moving tribute to the history of Centre Wellington, Surgeon Ahead was a testament to progress and an appropriate fundraiser for the new hospital to be erected in Groves’ name.