A Red Orchid Theatre. By Abbie Spallen. Directed by J.R. Sullivan. With Dado, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, Meg Warner, John Francis Babbo. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The program for the U.S. premiere of Irish playwright Abbie Spallen's Strandline at A Red Orchid includes a brief explanation of the Troubles—the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland—and how certain terms used by the border-dwelling characters in Spallen's play would be understood by Irish audiences to be coded references to one's allegiance. This recap isn't printed in the program proper, though; it's an insert. After seeing Spallen's perplexingly obscure piece, I half suspect it was added during previews in an attempt to help orient audience members; without having read it beforehand, I would have been totally lost by the darkly comic play's sharply violent climax. As it was, I was still rather flummoxed.
Strandline opens on a disorienting note, with three women and a dirty young lad staring worriedly out into the distance while ABBA plays off to the side. Between the playwright's deliberate withholding of detail and our ears adjusting to the combination of thick dialect and drunken slurring, it takes several minutes to get a read on the situation, but we learn that the women are guests at a beachside wedding, and the father of the bride, a popular man about town named Tom, has dived into the water in an attempt to save a couple of boating tourists in trouble. He doesn't come back.
The remainder of the play takes place at the home of Tom's widow, Mairin (Kirsten Fitzgerald), as his wake is winding down. Eileen (Natalie West) and Clodagh (Dado), the two other women who witnessed Tom's drowning, are there, as is the bride, Mairin's scornful stepdaughter Triona (Meg Warner). It becomes clear that Mairin is seen by most of the close-knit townsfolk as an outsider who thinks herself superior. Eileen and Clodagh have never been invited to Mairin's home before, but she implores them to stay so she doesn't have to be alone. Whiskey is drunk by the liter, resentments are aired, secrets are revealed.
The odd boy, Sweeney (John Francis Babbo, compellingly weird), brims with conspiracy theories, old wives' tales about graven images and twisted bits of mythology he's gleaned from the Discovery Channel; he plants the idea in Mairin's head that Clodagh might have magically caused the storm that killed Tom. Or maybe he's suggesting that Mairin did it herself? This is one of many points on which Spallen and director J.R. Sullivan leave us narratively at sea.
Additional allusions to Celtic traditions, the giant tapestry Mairin is weaving on a loom, those code words for the Troubles—one suspects that there must be references that a native audience could read but are lost in translation here. As the insinuations of what Mairin didn't know about her husband turn from suggestions of carousing and affairs into a full-on townwide murder conspiracy, and a suddenly sinister Clodagh orders Sweeney to strip to his underwear while she threatens him with a pair of scissors in that weirdly unearned twist, we lose the thread completely. Intriguing in places but impenetrable on the whole, Strandline leaves us stranded.