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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Portia Coughlan"

by Marina Carr
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly

Set by Mick Spence
Lighting by John R. Malinowski
Sound by Ben Emerson
Costumes by Sarah D. Pruitt
Stage Manager Brenda Morris

Portia Coughlan............Kathleen Troost
Raphael Coughlan............Douglas Rainey
Maggie May Doorley..........Geralyn Horton
Senchil Doorley...............Bill Meleady
Damus Halion..................Brian Scally
Stacia......................Sarah O'Connor
Fintan Goolan..............Ciaran Crawford
Marianne Scully................Miki Joseph
Blaize Scully...............Nancy Ferranti
Sly Scully.....................Miles Cares
Voice of Gabriel Scully....Teddy Crecelius

The Sugan Theatre Company picked a complicated, difficult play in Marina Carr's "Portia Coughlan". It spins out the tale of a wilful sharp-tongued 30-year-old wife driven half mad by the memory, half her life, of the suicide of her musical-genius twin brother. Then they concentrated so much on trying to make the music of Carr's mountain-country backwater dialect tell her Irish-gothic tragedy there was no time left to make any sense of it all.

Marina Carr spends the early parts of her play alternately painting the picture of a woman at cruel war with her husband, her family, her lovers and herself, and dropping hints and snippets about that twin who was and still is the other half of her self. Then in a series of scenes Carr unleashes all the vast vocabulary of Celtic curses on all sides, raking up three and four generations of small-town viciousness and unforgotten insults, painting poor Portia into a corner between old, unresolved hatreds, and the consequences of her fifteen years of spiteful invective. It's a harrowing play, built on that Irish ability to rememeber everything and to dish it up with eloquence at the slightest provocation.

There is poetry here too, even in the lilting spite of the curses, but also in Portia's love of her valley's Bolton River. She notices the yearling salmon come instinctively back to spawn, the day the herons return, the frog's eggs edging the water plants, the brooding beauty of the rapids that carried her brother to his death.

But the company apparently spent all their rehearsal-time on accents, to the point that half the lines carry a subtext only of concentration on pronunciation and none on implication, or even on meaning itself. The fear of mispronunciation that is alive in performance turns what may be accurate speech into a slathered-on, unconvincing stage-Irish that bears no feeling of place at all. And this for an audience of American ears what dinna ken a difference atween Brooklynese and Queens. 'Twas all a waste, a senseless waste.

The misplaced effort meant that possible subtleties went by the board. The cast found no way to register emotions but to shriek, they freeze on stage as though only the one speaking a line is acting, and no one is surprised by what anyone else says.

To her credit, Kathleen Troost as Portia is the center of the play, and largely attains what the supporting players barely reach for. Her quick rages and softly thoughtful musings do have a vulnerable prickliness, and the sound of her dead brother singing in her head isolates and instantly transforms her as though into a different reality. She is also under-rehearsed, and cannot carry the whole play by herself with only intermittent help from her fellows, nor has she more than made a beginning of bringing this tormented girl to life.

At the top of Part Two there is a startlingly effective set-piece scene --- a flash-forward no honorable critic should reveal --- followed by a quiet dialog between Brian Scally and Claran Crawford as Portia's lovers; Billy Meleady and Geralyn Horton each have scenes with Portia that are quietly effective; there are speeches for everyone, scattered about, that work as pieces. And John R. Malinowski has lighting effects, particularly for the last moments, that, well that shine.

But in a difficult, complicated play as this is, pieces that don't add up are not enough. As strangeness after obsession after revelation after quirk of incestuously rural characters that would make Faulkner's people tame spill out so incoherently across the stage, a puzzled audience might be impelled to shout "Guid Gawd, man, hae ye nair heard o' Prozak!" And that is not what Marina Carr had in mind.


"Portia Coughlan" (till 14 March)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

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