Ah, sweet Belfast – where the women are women and the men are dead.
Keegan Theatre’s latest, Rona Munro’s Bold Girls, begins as a ghost story in an occupied land and ends up as a domestic drama which could have been set in Pinsk, or Peoria. Marie (Ghillian Porter) mourns her dead husband (“a good, good man,” she explains to her young son, “who watches us from above even now.”); her friend Cassie (Helen Pafumi) has a husband and a brother in jail, and Cassie’s mother Nora (Linda High) has a dead husband and a son and son-in-law in jail. These women – the “Bold Girls” of the story’s title – are less waiting for the return of their men than they are waiting for the next terrible, incomprehensible blow from a mean-spirited God and the occupying British army. They are traditional women, whose traditions have been blown to smithereens.
At the periphery of their lives is Dierdre (Carolyn Agin), a wraithlike apparition whose inexplicable influence over Marie and Cassie grows more powerful as she herself becomes more substantial. But Marie, Cassie and Nora are relentlessly determined to live life as normally as possible against a backdrop of unfathomable pain. Like any group of single working people, they covet a night out at the local pub. Cassie starves herself so that she can drink herself silly and still fit into a bikini. They ogle over available men, and also over power tools and other household goods, made available in a Price-is-Right-type game show at the pub. They reflect on their sins, and, more enthusiastically, each others’ sins.
Munro won an award from the Evening Standard for this work, and the play has much going for it. She resists the temptation to flood the first scene with exposition, allowing the mysteries to unfold in their own sweet time, and permitting the audience to experience a touch of discomfort and confusion at the outset. This makes Munro a sort of bold girl herself, willing to defy conventional expectation in favor of a bigger payoff at the end.
Munro does her best work in portraying the effect of the British occupation – or, more specifically, the way the Belfast Irish cope with it. The play is flooded with masterly Irish misdirection. (The Irish language, significantly, has no words for “yes” or “no”.) In the play’s most heartbreaking scene, High’s Nora describes how brutish British soldiers dragged her son-in-law out of her home – “his hand still clutching a piece of pie” – and tossed her arse-over-teakettle into the bushes when she tried to intervene. This was a tragedy, but in Nora’s telling it becomes a sort of farce, with herself as the comic victim. Again and again, the bold girls turn their face from their surroundings and pretend that something else is happening, or that it’s happening to someone else.
The ultimate interest of these bold girls is in their absent men, and Munro delivers a triple climax in the final scene, when even the bold girls’ powerful denials are not sufficient against the power of secrets which need to be told. These secrets are not political or special to Belfast; they are mundane and universal – the secrets that people keep everywhere.
Had Munro ended the play there, she would have created something close to an ideal piece of work. Unfortunately, for reasons which are not inherently clear (but perhaps owing to insecurity on the part of the playwright, who was only 32 when this play was first produced), Munro chose to add a coda in which she compelled Marie to explain the play’s themes to a not-entirely-interested Dierdre. This monologue, which seemed to go on for about ten minutes, put intolerable strains on Porter as Marie and Agin as Dierdre. For that period, Marie is obliged to sustain a single note of devastated, rueful self-awareness, and Dierdre is required to sit with an expression of pain, slablike, on her face. ‘Twasn’t fair to them, or to us; Ms. Munro should have noted that the post-play apology was on its way out in Shakespeare’s time, and for good reason.
But until that monologue, Bold Girls is a good time. Porter is utterly convincing as the wholesome, relentlessly optimistic Marie. High – so good in ACT’s Autumn Garden a few months ago – delivers a specifically rendered, thoughtful performance as a tough middle-aged woman full of peasant cunning. Cassie is probably the most complex character in the show; Pafumi, who had some line problems on opening night, nonetheless gave us a fully-realized character. Agin did not look like sixteen – her character’s age – but otherwise gave us everything we needed from the character: guardedness, aggression, and a sense of danger and vulnerability. Director Mark Rhea provided excellent pacing – the play clocked in at two and a quarter, including a fifteen-minute intermission – and imaginative staging. But for Munro’s last-minute failure of nerve – forgivable, and worthy of our forgiveness – Bold Girls is solid, sustained theatrical pleasure.
Bold Girls, presented by the Keegan Theatre, Thursdays through Sundays, plays at the Gunston Art Center Theater II at 2700 South Lang Street in Arlington, VA through May 13, and thereafter at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington from May 18 to June 11, 2006. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 2.