note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
In the opening moments of “Bella Donna,” a contemporary Irish drama running through November 21 at the Devanaughn Theatre, the musical selections offer a symbolic hint of what is to come. Bing Crosby croons a few bars from the 1940s American song book, which is then followed by several measures of traditional Celtic music. Two cultures -- one depicted as fearless, loud and headstrong and the other as hesitant and constrained, but with a higher moral authority -- collide in a tale of love, war and peace.
Based on the true story of an American B-17 Flying Fortress that crashed in Sligo, Ireland, in December, 1944, “Bella Donna” chronicles several days in the lives of the surviving American soldiers and the Irish inhabitants with whom they converge during World War II. What ensues is a poetry of language rich with humor and pathos. And no wonder. Written by playwright John Kavanagh, who has published two collections of poetry, with a third in the works, the multi-award-winning Irish scribe is as much poet as a playwright. Mixing snippets of jazz with intermittent Irish melodies between scenes, the short, musical interludes reinforce the disparity between the two cultures while Kavanagh’s ear for dialogue exquisitely conquers its differences.
Dancing from the mouth of Nurse Mahon (Dani Duggan), a spitfire if there ever was one, words not only have a melodic brogue, but spin and turn and swoop into a rainbow of phrases as colorful as an artist’s palette.
Described by her supervisor as having “a tongue of steel and a heart of gold,” Nurse Mahon gets most of the funny lines too. With dead-on delivery, she sprays anyone who crosses her path with quick fire announcements, orders, and judgments. A holy terror as endearing as she is intimidating, Duggan owns the feisty character inside and out whether caring for the wounded soldiers, chiding them or her colleagues for disregarding the rules, or pushing a local acquaintence into an emotional tailspin.
Representing the progressive side of the Atlantic, American doctor Major William Dillman (Richard La France) lands in the isolated community to retrieve his wounded men, but is sidetracked when he falls for American born Maria Connelly (Alex Zielke), whose father, home, and allegiance reside in Sligo, even though her heart is still captivated by New York City.
A subplot to their short romance evolves around Lt. Joseph Brodsky (Michael Gonzales), the most decorated American flyer, who would have finished his third tour of duty without a blemish had the plane not crashed during its final flight.
Filled with despair, Brodsky holds himself accountable. Instead of blaming the crash on the poor weather conditions, he admits to “being distracted” by his feelings towards one of the soldiers under his command: Sgt. Stan Smith (Dan Fitzpatrick), who lies in bed unmoving and in a coma during the entire first act.
The Air Force hero, ordered to return to the States to receive a citation from Roosevelt, refers to Smith as his boyfriend. Admitting to the doctor that all he could think about during the final flight was “this might be our last night together,” Brodsky feels responsible for the soldier’s death as well as depressed about losing his companion. Ultimately, both romances rub up against cultural boundaries -- one drawn by borders and the other by society’s dictums. Out of step with the music and out of time with their options, the two couples reflect the difficult challenge of falling in love during times of war. And as the play winds down, we are left to believe that their inner struggles continue long after the battles have ceased.
Under Rose Carlson’s direction “Bella Donna” crescendos scene by scene, offering convincing performances by the eight member cast. Curiously though, La France repeatedly stumbled over his lines during opening weekend, leaving a wake of stop, starts and cover-ups. By all means, a jarring contrast to the inherent poetry laced throughout Kavanagh’s script.