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Theater Review Tender treatment of the lives of 4 sisters

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

SKERRY’S, by Christopher Jones. Directed by Manfred Bormann. Featuring Susan Barnes Walker, Deshja Driggs, Carey Urban and Liz Brown. At the 42nd Street Workshop, 432 West 42nd St., NYC. Through Feb. 25.

Oddly, playwright Chris Jones, who, using the name Chris Carrick, is something of a fixture in Irish theater in New York, has given his new play something of a double identity as well.

The actor-writer calls his play "Skerry’s," but specifies the locale of the work in the production’s program as "Skerries, a seaside town outside Dublin." The term "Skerry’s" refers to a little cluster of three islands in the Irish sea, off the coast of the northern half of County Dublin, a region familiarly known as Fingal.

Jones knows the difference between the town and the islands well, since the former is where his mother’s family originated, and, indeed, his play’s four characters, lovingly and carefully detailed in his gentle "memory play," are sisters, conjured up in "Skerry’s" without the author’s having done so much as change their names.

The siblings came, as did Jones’s father, from a farming family just a few miles north of Dublin in the days before the city grew toward the coast, making small farms impractical.

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His mother, Fanny, and her sisters Maisie, Madge and Betty were strongly linked by music. They all sang, accompanied by Madge, the one who played the piano, always with a glass of wine resting on the instrument, within easy reach.

If Madge’s drinking presents a problem to the other members of her family, nothing much is made of it. In fact, no one so much as mentions it in the course of the two longish acts of "Skerry’s," which is either an indication of the sisters’ obtuseness, their adroitness at denial, or, perhaps, the discretion with which playwright Jones has addressed his materials.

Imagine, if you will, a version of Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night" in which none of the family members so much as mentions Mary Cavan Tyrone’s drug addiction, even when she is not in the room, and you will arrive at an approximation of "Skerry’s."

Not that Jones’s play is in any way as serious or probing as O’Neill’s masterpiece. The four Elvery sisters of the new play, on view at the 42nd Street through the 25th of the month, talk about the men they’ve lost, the men they’d like to marry, or, in the case of Maisie, the eldest and most inexperienced of the quartet, the individual with whom she is about to enter in a strikingly unpromising marital union.

All of these topics seem to bring forth floods of tears from one or another of the siblings, creating the general impression that hysteria has taken up more or less permanent residence in the Elvery family’s modest home.

In writing a play about his mother and her three sisters, Jones hasn’t delved deeply enough into the family’s "truth" and its attendant secrets to cause himself any real pain — the rawness that comes from unsparing detachment and an unflinching eye for unpleasant details.

"Skerry’s," in its softness and in the cushioned way it treats its characters, could be said to lie in the direction of O’Neill’s stubbornly sunny "Ah, Wilderness!" rather than the wrenching "Long Day’s Journey."

For the current production, director Manfred Bormann has put together a strong cast, with Susan Barnes Walker a standout as the oldest Elvery, Maisie, naive to the point of retardation, but still somehow entirely credible and sympathetic.

As her sister, Deshja Driggs is an appealing, emotionally fragile Fanny, with Carey Urban as the stalwart and musically gifted Madge, and Liz Brown as Betty, the "baby" of the family.

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