note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Monica Raymond
Ballast, the title of Kathleen Roger's new play, refers to Irish immigrants who arrived in the US in the hold of cargo ships. In the dreadful passage, the corpses of those who died were not discarded but retained to provide ballast for the boat. In Rogers' lyrical and mysterious play, the dead and living also occupy the same space, even if they sometimes do not know it.
Deidre (Rose Portman) and John Fallon (Derry Woodhouse) are contemporary Irish immigrants who're making the most of the opportunities the new world offers. They own a large house in a good neighborhood, John runs a successful construction company, Deidre works with refugees, and their all-too-typical teenage daughter Maeve (Alicia Kahn) loves Barbies and chocolate chip cookies. The solo school presentation about the Irish potato famine she makes in a rumpled jumper is a comic tour de force. She tries to bolt through it, argues with her teacher, shifts and shrugs like a colt trying to shed her harness; she can't wait to be off to the mall, or whatever comes after.
What comes after, though, is an inexplicable disappearance, where a man in a monkey mask whom we never see holds Maeve captive. The playwright shifts us back and forth between Maeve's monologues in captivity and her parents' reactions to her disappearance. Director Nora Hussey uses the elegantly austere theatre in the round (square, actually) to good effect here--Maeve's captivity delineated by keeping her in a corner of the audience, intermittently lit and dim.
Her parents respond differently to Maeve's disappearance. From the gitgo, Deidre is more public, quicker to adapt--going to the cops when she realizes Maeve is missing, going on TV to plead for information "because that's the way it's done in America," going back to work when no more of that information is forthcoming. John holds his suffering private and close. He refuses to believe Maeve won't come back, and, indeed for the rest of the play, he never gives up hope of seeing her again. He turns the business over to an associate and that gives him more time--to descend into the basement, to brood, to go back into Maeve's school project and a bitter knowledge of Irish history. He pursues that knowledge through books, and then, with the arrival of fleshly, ghostly Lizzie Moore (Alicia Kahn), in other ways as well.
Alicia Kahn does commendable double duty here. As the pubescent Maeve, she's awkward, brash, self-conscious, sometimes gratingly shrill; as Lizzie, face daubed with charcoal, she's a sensuous priestess of the underworld, privy to secrets, blunt in the face of horror. Kerry Woodhouse plays John as a buoyant spirit for whom Maeve's disappearance is simply too big a burden. And Natalie Portman is gripping as Deidre, who, in her grief takes the refugee women she works with as models and responds by simply "putting one foot in front of the other."
There are built-in problems to the form Rogers attempts here --- a bright plateau from which we proceed down, and then, further down. Because Deidre and John are almost instantly at odds in their suffering, and never resume even a wink of their former intimacy, it was sometimes hard for me to stay interested in their quarrels. And, though clearly the playwright has been able to descend into the past and return, she doesn't give her characters that same option. What Rogers has done is to offer a glimpse of a bleak Irish history far from the "terrorists and stepdancers" Deidre decries. The playwright's refusal to offer false palliatives, and her willingness to ask the most difficult questions, marks this enterprise as one both serious and brave. In Ballast, she creates a world that -- with its juxtapositions of the the dead and the living, the mysterious and the mundane--continues to haunt.