A Red Orchid Theatre. By Abbie Spallen. Dir. Karen Kessler. With Kirsten Fitzgerald, Larry Grimm, Grace Rex.
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Spallen’s keenly observed portrait of rural Northern Ireland as the land of no opportunity. In three intertwining monologues, her characters reveal the seemingly insurmountable mediocrities of their lives. The title character is a young tomboy who works at the local garage, enduring hecklers’ jabs at her androgyny. She’s sweet on her sort-of friend and sometimes lover Hammy, a lunkheaded amateur auto racer proudly nicknamed “No Helmet.” Hammy mostly ignores his bored wife, Sinead, who dreams of another—any other—life. When the three are roused from their waking slumbers by the actions of an unseen fourth character, the burden of self- recognition proves hard to bear.
In Spallen’s second play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, the young Northern Irish playwright demonstrates a lovely facility with descriptive language, even if her metaphors are laid on a bit thick and the characters too ready and able to psychoanalyze themselves. The desire for escape is hammered home with repeated allusions to claw marks on the roof of Hammy’s car; even Hammy’s predilection for Budweiser seems motivated by the American swill’s foreignness.
Pumpgirl’s direct-address format requires an intimate connection between actors and audience; Spallen’s play wouldn’t work across the divide of a proscenium, and director Kessler uses A Red Orchid’s claustrophobic space as effectively as we’ve seen. While each cast member displays admirable subtlety, Fitzgerald’s Sinead is the unlikely anchor. The actor crafts a fully formed life from Spallen’s snippets and never lets us see the seams.