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Niagara-on-the-Lake actor speaks of her role in Son of a Critch

The third season of the series, based on the childhood memories of actor and comic Mark Critch of This Hour has 22 Minutes, premiers next week.

Those who know actor Nora McLellan might have trouble picturing her as a mean, threatening nun whose main job as school principal is to terrify unruly students into submission with a stern look and a wooden ruler in hand.

But that’s not only the role she plays in a CBC television program, it’s a role she loves.

Best known in town for her years on stage at the Shaw Festival, the Niagara-on-the-Lake resident has a recurring role in the popular Son of a Critch, a CBC series going into its third season, which premieres Tuesday, Jan. 9.

Based on the award-winning, best-selling memoir from Mark Critch, host of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Son of a Critch is described by CBC as “the hilarious and very real coming of age tale set in 1980s Newfoundland. It’s a heartfelt window into the life of a 14-year-old boy, much older than his years, who uses comedy and self-deprecation to win friends and find his place in the‚Äč world.”

McLellan is enthusiastic about the show, the location — St. John’s, Nfld. — the cast and crew, and the fact that it offers her work she loves.

The first season of filming was in 2021, during the pandemic, when cast members stayed at the otherwise empty Delta Hotel in St John’s, she says. For two summers, they would hang out together, going swimming or watching soccer — pandemic restrictions meant there wasn’t a lot else to do when not working. That has changed, but the cast and crew are still a tightly knit group.

McLellan also does some recording for the show in Toronto, and whether there or in Newfoundland, the people she works with “are fabulous. We work hard, and when we hang out together we have a lot of fun. I’m never not having fun” when working on it, she says.

McLellan agrees that for those who remember The Wonder Years, there is a similarity, especially with Critch as narrator, but, she emphasizes, the big difference is “this is a true story. It’s Mark’s life growing up in Newfoundland, as written in his memoir, and his talent as a comic is clearly evident.”

“While some of the story-line may seem outlandish,” she adds, “most of it really happened.”

Much of the filming is done on a set designed to replicate the Critch family home, with Mark playing his father — even wearing his father’s jacket and carrying his father’s lunch box, says McLellan.

Young Benjamin Evan Ainsworth plays Mark, who in the beginning of season three is entering Grade 9, or what is considered junior high school in Newfoundland. He is still awkward, although coming into his own, as a late bloomer. “He’s a 13-year-old boy going on 50,” says McLellan, “and incredibly bizarre things keep happening to this kid.”

Sister Rose, she explains, as a young woman, was in love with his grandfather, one of the main characters in the series. “It ended with her becoming a nun, and now they’ve reconnected, 50 years later.”

The character she plays, McLellan adds, “is married to Jesus, but it’s not a good marriage,” a complexity that comes through in her handling of the students in her charge. And although that often means she can be “pretty terrifying,” the ruler always in her hand, she never actually uses it.

Sister Rose “is a meaty role,” and the only one not based on a real person, she says — it’s a composite of women who played a role in Mark’s life growing up, and the love affair didn't actually happen.

The kids in the show were 11 or 12 when the series started, and are now 13 or 14, and they too are fun to work with. “I just love them, and the crew two. It’s really great to be amongst such a talented group of people.”

However, she laughs, “I would love to be anywhere working.”

A career built on acting, on stage, TV or in film, “is never secure. Whatever I’m doing at the time, I make the most of it. In this life you’re always wondering what will be next, and I’m really happy to be anywhere. I’m not anywhere near ready for retirement.”

“One minute you’re waiting in the wings, the next minute you’re wearing them,” she laughs. “That’s the goal I’m working on, because I love what I do.”

Although she has managed to combine some recent acting on stage while also filming Son of a Critch  — there are occasions when the timing makes it possible to do both, such as a summer at the Blyth Festival, involving limousine runs to the airport to fly back to St. John’s — there are not a lot of those opportunities, she says.

While never knowing what the future will bring, McLellan is hoping it includes another season of Son of a Critch, though a role for Sister Rose is not guaranteed.

In the meantime, “it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do work I really enjoy. I still live here in town, and I love living here. I love the weather and I love the people.”

She encourages everyone to watch Son of a Critch, on CBC or CBC Gem, “a deeply funny show, a comedy that can really tug at our heartstrings. And I am constantly surprised by how much is packed into each episode of 22 minutes.”