By Marina Carr
Directed by Jessica Burgess
Produced by Solas Nua
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In the course of its nearly three-year history, Solas Nua has brought many fine plays to the Washington area. Portia Coughlan is not one of them.
It is, instead, the misery-drunk saga of the extremely unpleasant Coughlan/Scully clan, whose members – for nearly two hours – demonstrate their need for psychotropic drugs.
Playwright Marina Carr sears us with a municipality of characters, none of whom we would sit next to on the subway, and makes us watch their bathetic and hyperbolic agonies. “It is hard to look at. But it has to be seen,” said the Irish Independent of this play. The Independent has it half right.
All that is wrong with Portia Coughlan is foreshadowed in Artistic Director Linda Murray’s program notes. “Shakespearean threads can be found throughout the story arc….Similarly, references to Irish mythology…are woven throughout the story. And finally, Greek classicism is also drawn upon….” References to classic stories can sometimes sharpen and illuminate a well-drawn plot. But to deliberately construct a story around a disparate set of myths from various parts of the world is to invite chaos and calamity.
Here is Portia’s story: on her thirtieth birthday, Portia Coughlan (Murray) thinks about her twin brother, who drowned in the Belmont River fifteen years previous. Boy, does she think about him! And rage about his death, and deliver herself into grief, and point the finger of blame at her mother (Declan Cashman) and her father (Bryan Cassidy) and even her husband (Jonathon Church), who appears not to have known the lad. She steps out on her husband with an old lover (Adam Segaller) and flirts openly with the loutish local bartender (Grady Weatherford). Her home, despite her husband’s riches, is a pig-sty and she avoids her children for fear that she will harm them in her rage. She drinks a bit, too.
The brother, who haunts the outskirts of the play as a silent, whirling, dancing ghost (Camille Loomis), is not just Portia’s obsession. Everyone, including Portia’s venomous grandmother (Rusty Clauss) has something to say about the unfortunate boy. What they have to say is mostly obscure and trivial, and they give us little impression of him beyond that he had a good singing voice. Nonetheless, Carr makes the dead boy the almost hallucinogenic focus of the play, rushing through portions that are not connected to him in order to get to the pain and the grief. (Artlessly, she has Portia tell her aunt [Charlotte Akin] at the outset of the play that she was “married at seventeen…too soon” as if Portia’s aunt would not know how old the girl was when she was married.)
It is tempting to say that this play is a waste of a good cast, but that would not be correct. A bad play needs a good cast more urgently than a good play does, because without a good cast a bad play will fall to pieces before the audience. This cast does an almost heroic job of saving the play, even managing to squeeze some humor out of it. In particular, some sassy dialogue between the bartender (Weatherford) and Portia’s best friend (Stephanie Roswell) early in the first Act is screamingly funny, and Clauss does an amazing turn as the bad granny. She is as funny as truth-telling Feste is in Twelfth Night at the beginning of the play, but as the play turns darker she becomes a black hole of malevolence, burning with an evil as bitter as an alum-and-rhubarb pie.
But even fine acting can’t redeem parts of the play. After Portia delivers a litany of the evil things she would do to her children were she allowed to be close to them, her husband, a master of understatement, responds “you’re not well.””I’m all right,” Portia replies, provoking a surprised bark of laughter from the audience.
The second Act contains two and a half shocking revelations, but none of them sheds any light on the behaviors of any of the characters.
Ms. Carr’s evident desire to drench her drama in mytho-poetic assumptions causes Portia Coughlan to fail in the more pedestrian, but necessary, functions of a play: to speak to the audience in terms the audience can understand; to illuminate, in some way, the human condition; and to engage the spark of recognition. Like House of Yes, another play which exaggerated the connectedness of twins, Portia Coughlan fails to engage because none of the principal characters are remotely sympathetic.
An untimely death is a sad thing, and where the decedent is a close relative the effects unquestionably linger. Fifteen years after the event, however, it does not provoke the histrionics we see in Portia Coughlan. Likewise, there is no doubt that twins – even fraternal twins, like Portia and her brother – are closer than ordinary siblings. However, no twins I know (and there are several in my family) share memories of swimming together in the amniotic fluid, as Portia describes to her husband in lyrical, clinical detail toward the end of the play.
Running Time: 1:45, including one intermission.
When: Thursdays through Sundays through April 6. Sunday shows are at 3; all other shows are at 8.
Where: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NW
Tickets: $20. Call 1.800.494.TIXS or go to http://www.solasnua.org/ to purchase.