Category: Archive

Theater Review Mothers inferior: women under lock and key

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

ECLIPSED, by Patricia Burke Brogan. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Starring Terry Donnelly, Rosemary Fine, Jacqueline Kealy, ‘din Moloney, Heather O’Neill, Amy Redmond, Erika Rolfsrud and Fiona Walsh. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through Dec. 19.

Sometimes they carry on like that chorus of winsome orphans in the Broadway musical "Annie." At other moments, they may remind you of the hard-edged individuals who populated all those movies Warner Bros. made about women’s prisons in the 1930s and ’40s.

Probably the only collection of theatrical females the women and girls in Patricia Burke Brogan’s "Eclipsed," playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre until Dec. 19, won’t conjure up are the ultrasophisticated urban denizens of Claire Booth Luce’s vicious comedy, "The Women."

The characters in "Eclipsed" do what such folk always do onstage: they roleplay, usually with the help of uniforms or robes of state, a cinch in the present instance, since the play is set in a laundry attached to an Irish convent where the paraphernalia of religious authority are more or less always on hand, being washed and ironed.

They sneak smokes, moon about idols of popular culture, in this case Elvis Presley, since the play is set in "the 1960s," when the singer was "King," scrap, and vent their frustrations, sometimes to the extent of exploding into hostilities that end with a couple of the group’s members wrestling on the floor.

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Five of the play’s eight characters are unwed mothers whose families have turned their collective backs and signed the girls over to a bizarre form of servitude that, the author affirms, actually took place here and there in Ireland, not being exterminated until early in the present decade.

The "Magdalene Laundries," as they were called, were generally attached to convents, with the nuns and even the novices extending close to complete authority over the lives and activities of the girls signed into their "care."

According to a program note provided by the Irish Rep, the first of these odd institutions on record in Dublin was founded in Leeson Street in 1766 as the "Magdalene Asylum." Often referred to as a "refuge," and, strangely enough, it gave sanctuary to Protestant women "under 20 years of age who had given birth out of wedlock or were expectant mothers."

Initially, these laundries represented a form of "good works" performed by privileged women on behalf of those less fortunate. Toward the middle of the 19th century, various orders of Catholic nuns, the Good Shepherd Sisters in Limerick, and the Sisters of Charity in Dublin, among others, took over, with the result that they began to take on the punitive tone that had become overwhelming by the time the author of "Eclipsed," then a young novice, was transferred to a convent to which one of the laundries was attached.

As Patricia Burke, she had plenty of opportunity to observe the cruelty that had crept into life in the laundries, and the situation in which the young girls were virtual prisoners, kept under lock and key and denied visits to their children, who were consigned to orphanages, mainly in the area.

The naive young postulant, Sister Virginia, played by the sweet-faced Heather O’Neill, is based in part, by the author’s own admission, on her own harsh experiences in a Galway convent that housed a Magdalene laundry.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary contains a secondary definition for the word "magdalene" that reads " a house of refuge for prostitutes," which indicates the manner in which these unfortunate young women were regarded, perhaps particularly when the church acquired the laundries.

Brogan’s play displays five young workers, four of them unwed mothers, and the fifth, the youngest, an arrival from the orphanage in which some of the other characters’ children are housed.

Along with the sympathetic self-portrait, Brogan has provided a neurotic, black-hearted mother superior, Mother Victoria, played by the normally unfaltering Terry Donnelly with the venal fervor normally associated with movie portraits of prison matrons.

The final member of director Charlotte Moore’s eight-woman cast, the briefly seen Erika Rolsrud, is Rosa, the linchpin of the play’s slightly awkward framing device, which has her journeying from Boston to Ireland in search of information concerning her mother, who she believes was one of the luckless inmates of the laundry she visits, motivating the two-act flashback that is the heart of the play.

The Rep’s reliable Rosemary Fine is the man-crazed, mentally unstable Mandy, obsessing on Presley, while the tall, fiery Amy Redmond is the rebellious Brigit, and the winsome Jacqueline Kealy is Juliet, the innocent newcomer from the orphanage. ‘din Moloney is something of a standout as the doomed, tubercular Cathy, whose 6-year-old twins are in the orphanage that produced Juliet.

Director Moore, normally sedate, has allowed a daunting amount of caterwauling, with the collective screeching and squealing often reaching a pitch that makes the dialogue impossible to hear. The worst offender in this regard, by far, is actress Redmond, who goes so far over the top that her key scene might as well be being rendered in Swahili. With luck and a bit of playing time, she may settle down, which is to be hoped for, since Brigit is a significant character, proving to be the deceased mother of the visitor from America.

What cannot be improved with time are the elements playwright Brogan has neglected to include, among them any form of convincing evidence indicating precisely why the young women were so utterly isolated, and whether or not anyone in the "outside" world ever even inquired about them, much less tried to help them in any active manner.

A recorded epilogue informs the Rep audience that, in the course of a construction project early in the present decade, the earthly remains of more than 300 women, including several of the play’s characters, were dug up, moved, and reburied.

"Eclipsed," which takes its title from an uncharacteristic remark the surly Mother Victoria makes about hidden lives, leaves so many questions unanswered that it ultimately becomes difficult to wholly believe that its materials were derived from reality.

The play was first produced locally a few seasons ago by the Bronx-based Thomas Davis Players, in a production that later transferred to West 42nd Street for a two-week run.

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