note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Aye, there’s nothing like a bittersweet, psychological, Irish play to chase away the sunshine and cloud the deep recesses of one’s mind.
That’s precisely what Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of prolific, award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s one-act, 85-minute play, “The New Electric Ballroom,” does. If you walk in the theater clear-headed, you come away with a compendia of sad, dark thoughts, making for stimulating after-show conversation.
I think Walsh does it on purpose, in the tradition of his Old Sod predecessors and contemporaries. At Gloucester Stage, the playwright has plenty of expert help with his psychological, gloomy tale of hope stimulated, hope dashed, leaving two sixtyish sisters stuck in a time warp. Boston’s outstanding stars Derry Woodhouse, (himself from Limerick, Ireland, mind ye), Marya Lowry, multi-award winners, Adrianne Krstansky and Rockport’s own, Nancy E. Carroll, are compelling in their roles of fishmonger Patsy, (Woodhouse), reclusive sisters, Clara (Lowry), Breda (Carroll) and their younger sister, Ada (Krstansky), who works in the village fish packing plant, but daily relives her older sisters‘ traumatic ritual with them. Russ Swift’s dismal lighting and spotlight on characters’ key monologues enhance mystical, dramatic moments.
Interim Artistic Director-Director Robert Walsh (no relation to playwright Walsh) deftly helms this superb cast and support crew. The story is painful, yet poetic, set in the present, in an Irish west coast small fishing village, where everybody talks- they love to talk - says Breda, whose back is turned to us. Clara sits as the table, a dazed look on her face, demanding tea.
And their younger sister, Ada, sits there, patiently resigned, knowing what’s coming next. “It’s time,” declares Breda; and their daily ritual of reliving an incident that occurred in the older sisters’ lives, in the 1950s, begins.
And we watch, on the edge of our seats, as their acting and Walsh’s dialogue mesmerizes us. It’s like watching a ballet, performed with precision and exquisite timing.
The playwright’s dialogue is poetic, his words fluid, yet tinged with an ugliness that causes these two women to repeat that one humiliating, intertwined incident that froze their lives.
Nobody visits their dingy cottage on the village outskirts (kudos, ever-fabulous set designer, Jenna McFarland Lord), save fishmonger Patsy, who ritually brings his delivery of fish and prattles town gossip to the ladies. He attempts small talk, and spouts his vivid nightmares to them. He also has a shy eye on Ada, who demurs at his glances. Breda makes fast work of him, though, showing Patsy the door, abruptly ushering him out.
Clara and Breda’s reminiscence and daily recreation of their teen-age encounter with a razzle-dazzle rock-’n’-roll idol who invited both of them to see him after the show (unbeknownst to each other) is painful. Breda is bitter, and she has reason. Clara is resigned to what happened, but she has never gotten over it. Although Ada luckily escaped their trauma, she fills in narration gaps, etc.
Although she goes to work, Ada can’t escape. Sleep and Patsy’s brief visits are Ada’s sole consolation. But there’s change in the air. After these many years, Breda has opened a door to Patsy, conducting a baptismal-style rebirth, which shockingly reveals facts, further enmeshing their fates.
The play is fascinating, the acting superb, but several theatergoers and I have my usual complaint. Dialect coach Erika Bailey may strive for authenticity with the actors‘ Irish accents, (save Woodhouse), but we New Englanders are unaccustomed to it, and have difficulty understanding them at times.
That said, “The New Electric Ballroom” won several awards- the Obie. Irish Times Best New Play Award, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award, and others. It’s easy to see why. Come see for yourself.