It is easy to imagine that Pumpgirl is a play that Sam Shepard might have written had he been born a Northern Irish woman. It is a bleak tale of three desperately unhappy lower class people in a story punctuated with both threatened and actual violence. Yet both the writing and the performances in this Solas Nua production have a powerful poetry that rivets the audience more than the actual events might warrant.
Madeleine Carr plays the eponymous pumpgirl, a tomboy who works at the local gas station. Although described as a girl who “walks like John Wayne and looks like his horse,” she has a feminine side that idealizes Hammy (Dan Brick). He’s an unhappily married man who works at a chicken farm but enjoys racing stock cars and sleeping with pumpgirl on the side. The third member of Spallen’s trio is Hammy’s wife Sinéad (Stephanie Roswell), an intelligent woman who settled for marrying Hammy because “there wasn’t much to choose from.”
The play is presented as a series of interwoven monologues, a format that might be off-putting were the quality of the storytelling and dialogue less stellar. Spallen’s writing is richly observant, full of keen observations and vivid descriptions of smells (an unfaithful husband who smells of aftershave and diesel fuel and sweating women) and sounds (the clank of a lover’s heavy belt buckle when he lets his pants fall to the floor). Spallen also includes pop culture references in her characters’ thoughts and even references music by AC/DC, Supertramp, Queen and Glen Campbell (reproduced in the show).
The early portions of the work are full of delicious dark comedy. Spallen gives the best lines work to Sinéad, who has a fierce and sarcastic wit. She describes pretending to be asleep when her husband comes home at night, and describes being separated from him in bed by invisible barbed wire. She recalls how she once found cute Hammy’s snores and sleep motions, but now they make her want to put a “hatchet through his head.” Stephanie Roswell gives a compelling performance as Sinéad, maintaining a strong and sardonic core that underlies even her softer moments.
As the story progresses, Spallen introduces dark revelations that allow the characters to demonstrate increasingly raw emotions. Sinead’s loneliness drives her to engage in an adulterous tryst with an ex-con who picks her up at the market. Pumpgirl experiences a sexual assault that gives Madeleine Carr a wrenchingly powerful scene. The events are made more heartwrenching because of the affection earned for this lonely young woman, thanks to Ms. Carr’s sensitive portrayal.
Hammy also has an interior struggle between his swagger and his insecurities, nicely balanced by Dan Brick’s performance. He attempts to rededicate himself to his duties as a husband and father, but his future success is far from certain.
In fact, little is certain about the future fate of the characters. While a definitive conclusion would be too neat for these characters and their messy lives, the story seems to fizzle out. Overall, the attraction of the work is not the story itself, but the way the story allows the characters to reveal themselves to the careful listener.
Director Linda Murry draws powerful performances from all of her actors and the minimalist set focuses attention on their emotions. The thick Irish accents are authentic, but occasionally difficult to undertand. The staging of the work in the round adds to the problems of an American ear trying to catch the speeches without any cues from actor interaction.
Solas Nua’s production of Pumpgirl is the first production of the work in the Washington area. It is a welcome introduction of the work of Abbie Spallen, who is regarded as one of Ireland’s most promising young playwrights. Based upon the potent and lyrical writing contained in this work, her career is one to follow.
By Abbie Spallen
Directed by Linda Murray
Produced by Solas Nua
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running Time: 1:55 (one intermission)
Where: Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington, DC
When: Through March 22nd. Thurs through Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3 pm, (except Thursday, March 19th performance will be at 8:30 pm).