Irish playwright Marina Carr offers many observations of importance in The Mai currently mounted at The Josephine Butler Arts Center in Columbia Heights. One of note is “Everyone is deranged — Some people just hide it better.” Another and the central theme of the play is “There are two kinds of people — there are those that put their children first and those that put their lovers first.” We all parent differently and we are all vastly different people. The Mai, directed by Artistic Director Linda Murray and co-director Caroline Kenney is dreamy and stylish, while retaining the intimacy for which the company has received deserved praise.
This is a play of lilting Irish prose and biting sarcasm as told by the Mai’s sixteen year old daughter Millie (Stephanie Roswell) whose memories of her childhood give way to chilling visions of future events. The Mai (Kerry Waters) is a tragic figure who is left to raise her daughter alone by her philandering cellist husband Richard (Ken Arnold). She builds her family a mansion on the shores of Owl Lake a place of legend and Irish myth. Carr details spirited family arguments and finally anguished family holidays that lead to splits in the fabric that holds the the family together.
The play opens with Robert returning home — he promises of change but sadly he cannot deliver his fidelity or love. Carr points out effectively that the “orchestration is different but the tune is always the same.” So it is then we watch this family deconstruct before our eyes, man and woman, mother and daughter, grandmother and sisters. Their lives are played out before us in an intimate setting of nostalgia, worn records on the phonograph, a dancing fire and sad tales of love lost. We are pulled into the empty souls of this family as if even God has given up on them and allowed us this momentary glance at things that seem too personal for us to witness.
By mounting the play in a mansion instead of trying to recreate such a setting on a conventional stage Murray and Kenny open the production to some risky but successful choices. The unconventional (table and floor lamps) lighting by Marriane Meadows both warm and effective meshes with a crackling fireplace and cellist Karin Loya’s dark, beautiful accompaniment to provide a romantic setting that must be experienced. There are moments when the play shifts to the balcony that some key dialog might not be heard by those seated near the fireplace – I recomend sitting as far left as possible.
There is no shortage of wonderful characters and performances in Solas Nua’s production. In Irish Mythology the Mai is a female figure that destroys her young; Kerry Waters delivers an exquisite portrayal that builds to an intensity that threatens to explode. Ken Arnold is Robert her louse of a husband — he has the ability to spark every argument into a near melt down. The gem of this show is the visiting Grandma Fraochlán (Rusty Clauss), a spunky one hundred years old; she delivers most of the wisdom and much of the humor. It is her mulberry wine and opium infused conversations with Beck (Clare Johnson) that are the play’s most poignant.
Solas Nua is one of the hardest working small theatre companies in DC. Not only will they mount four plays this season but they will throw a film festival and a Saint Patrick’s Day book giveaway into their mix of theatre, literature, music and film. Linda Murray and Managing Director Dan Brick have in a very short time garnered substantial, deserved praise for their intimate often smash mouth brand of Irish theatre. For a company to show artistic growth from year to year is an admirable goal — to show growth from production to production is exemplary. The Mai is a play that is exemplary, it impresses through artistic vision, superb acting and incredible staging. Solas Nua’s The Mai provides us with a glimpse of where they are headed — if you love inventive theatre I think you might want to meet them at their destination.
Stage Manager – Amy Boyce, Lighting – Marianne Meadows, Sound – Chris Pifer, Costumes – Lynly Saunders, Props – Heather Boyce, Set Design – Scott A Ford and Linda Murray, House Manager – Lora Nunn, Photos – Agata Pesko
The Mai – Kerry Waters Grandma Fraochlán – Rusty Clauss Millie – Stephanie Roswell Robert – Ken Arnold Connie – Karen Novack Beck – Clare Johnson Agnes – Declan Cashman Julie – Elizabeth Bruce Cellist – Karin Loya