By Joseph Hurley
OURSELVES ALONE, by Anne Devlin. Featuring Susan Ferrara, Heather Fairfield and Geraldine Hughes. Produced by the Open Fist Theatre Company. At Producer’s Club II, 616 Ninth Ave. (between 43rd and 44th Streets), NYC. Through Sunday, Jan. 28.
In writing "Ourselves Alone," which debuted in London in the 1985-86 season, writer Anne Devlin was attempting an almost insurmountable task, namely to tell the story of strife-torn Belfast in some of the worst days of the ongoing struggle through the medium of three "ordinary" Catholic women whose lives were altered irreparably by ongoing events.
Devlin, the Belfast-born daughter of the controversial labor leader, Paddy Devlin, who died last year after a long illness, has framed her play, whose title is the literal translation of "Sinn Fein," in no fewer than 15 scenes, set mainly in and around Andersonstown, West Belfast, with brief excursions to South Belfast and Dublin.
The writer, constructing her first play, has built some obstacles into the work, stumbling blocks that, in both the current revival and an earlier off-Broadway staging five years ago, resulted in an overall pace that slows to a deadly crawl as beds and sofas are hauled on, and then, after a brief scene has been played, awkwardly trundled off again.
In the new production, directed by Martha Demson on the limited stage of the Producer’s Club II on Ninth Avenue, where it will end it short run with this Sunday’s matinee, the problem is compounded by the fact that the furniture shifting is accomplished by stagehands in black hoods, giving the ironic impression that IRA operatives have been compelled to take on day jobs as furniture removalists.
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At the vortex of Devlin’s ambitious drama are two Andersonstown sisters, Donna and Josie McCoy, and their sister-in-law, Frieda, the wife of their brother, a Long Kesh prisoner in the play’s early scenes. Demson’s production is fortunate in having three excellent, eloquent actresses for those crucial roles, with Susan Ferrara as the singing, songwriting, slightly superficial Donna, Heather Fairfield as Josie, possessor of a hidden agenda of her own, and Geraldine Hughes as the stalwart Frieda, struggling to provide a calm life for her infant daughter despite the absence of her incarcerated mate.
"Ourselves Alone" benefits from generally meritorious work in the play’s supporting roles, particularly from Sean Mahon and Lawrence Grimm as men who impact powerfully on the sisters’ lives, and from Tim McDonnell as their father, Malachy. Everybody else in the cast, generally doubling and tripling to meet the play’s demands, is at the very least acceptable. Another distinct production asset, repeatedly called into play to cover the work’s pokey scene changes, is the complex and appealing musical score cobbled together from Irish folk sources and recorded for the occasion by star violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, with an assist from Adam LeBow, who provided "original music" for one number, "The Volunteer."
In an author’s note, dated "August 1985," around the time of the play’s London debut, Devlin wrote, "I began this play with two women’s voices, one funny and one serious, and then I found I had a third, the voice of a woman listening. And all the women were in some ways living without men. And then the father and a stranger came into the room. And I found myself wondering who the stranger was and what he was doing there."
That’s as clear a setup for "Ourselves Alone" as anyone could wish, and it’s a pity that Anne Devlin, an admirable writer who has worked extensively in British and Irish television, wrote herself into something of a corner by cluttering the work with so many brief, extraneous scenes.
The only way the play could succeed fully would be through the use of a turntable to help things moving at a reasonable pace. Such a device, however, is obviously beyond the budget of any production company that might conceivably be tempted to tackle the play.
Then, too, time has caught up with "Ourselves Alone," whose title alone has, of course, ruled out the possibility of a production in Northern Ireland, unless the name were changed.
In the decade and a half that has passed since Devlin wrote the play, events that burned with immediacy have dimmed out to some extent, with the result that "Ourselves Alone" now plays, unfortunately, like rather enlightened soap opera as we follow Frieda, Josie, and silly Donna, who wants to succeed as a singer-songwriter and who manages to render "The Boys Behind the Wire" as though it were a dance tune, through the events of their troubled lives.
The Open Fist Theatre Company, a Hollywood-based production company founded in 1999, is to be commended for staging a difficult play for its New York debut, apparently under the impression that they were giving Devlin’s work its American premiere, unaware that there had been an earlier production at Here, on Lower Sixth Avenue, several seasons ago.
Sadly, the Open Fist’s earnest new staging has stumbled over precisely the same obstacles that hobbled the earlier production, which was, in fact, the American premiere, and which the playwright attended.