Reviewed by Will Stackman
Belfast native Marie Jones is best known in this country for "Stones in His Pockets" (1999), a coup de theatre which has two layabouts recount the visit of a foreign film crew to their backwater home town, playing more than a dozen characters in this serio-comic drama However, among her extensive list of plays, going back to 1983, are intriguing pieces like "Women on the Verge of HRT" (1995) which use multimedia elements, songs for the cast, and elements of traditional Irish fantasy to recount the frustrations of two women in their late '40s, dealing with their unsatisfactory love lives--and menopause. These parts are taken by two IRNE winning actresses, Sugan's Artistic Director, Carmel O'Reilly as Anna, and Judith McIntyre as Vera. The pair are at a hotel on Donegal Bay, which belongs to Daniel O Donnell, a popular singer of romantic ballads who has an annual event there, which draws hordes of adoring fans. Middle-aged women flock there not only for O Donnell's concerts but to attend an annual tea party and autograph signing at his picturesque farm. All the male parts in this script are taken by Sugan regular, Derry Woodhouse, who first appears as Fergal, delivering late night drinks as the busboy. Woodhouse incidentally just repeated his leading role in Ronan Noone's award-winning "The Blowin of Baile Gall" at the Irish Repertory in NYC.
The show was directed by Richard Scanlan, who's acquainted with the playwright since directing the world premiere of "The Hamster Wheel" (1990) for the Charabanc Theatre Co. in Belfast. Scanlan, currently Professor of the Practice of Theatre at Harvard, also served as dramaturg for the ART, and before that was Head of the Drama Program at MIT. Last spring he directed an effective "Julius Caesar" for the Actors' Shakespeare Project. His broad range of experience is well suited to a play which begins with long establishing monologue by Anna, which introduces the metaphor of Hormone Replacement Therapy and culminates in the showing of O Donnell's promotional video for the event the women've come to attend. Later in the act the women break into song to original music by Belfast composer, Neil Martin, arranged and accompanied by music theatre composer Jeffrey Goldberg, who's affiliations include the Boston Playwrights' Theatre and Harvard. And in the second act, after veteran Sugan designer J. Michael Griggs' foursquare hotel bedroom has disappeared leaving an essentially bare stage representing the beach at night, the show really eschews realism as Woodhouse becomes various men--and women-- in the lives of the two heroines. Woodhouse also was featured two seasons ago in a highly successful production of "Stones..." coproduced and presented by the Gloucester Stage Co. and the Stoneham Theatre.
For their return to their old home base, the original BCA basement theater now called the Plaza, Sugan has enlisted new and old hands to work with Griggs, who teaches Stage Design to Harvard undergraduates. Foremost is M.I.T.'s Karen Perlow, an IRNE winning lighting designer who solved most of the problems of lighting in this space long ago. She in effective provides two successful lighting plots; one for the first act interior, and one expressive night time exterior for the beach with its inset scenes. For costumes, the company has turned to newcomer Clinton O'Dell, who recently worked with Trinity in Providence. He provides frumpy blue P.J.'s with an unmatched pink robe for Anna contrasted with racy lingerie for tanned and trim Vera. Nathan Leigh handles his first sound design in the space with dispatch, particularly in the second act where the voice of the Ban Sidhe--banshee to us Yanks--echoes throughout.
While the first act may seem a bit long as it lays out the minutiae of Anna and Vera's unsatisfactory lives, there's no wasted stage time. All the details weighing them down find resolution down by Donegal's magical bay in the second. O'Reilly and McIntyre's contrasting styles, well suited to their characters, keep the action moving. Scanlan has helped them find a common rhythm, while their experience brings the Belfast sound to the dialogue. Woodhouse has to find a great range of voices, from a parody of O Donnell the singer to several distraught women of our heroine_s acquaintance. A Limerick man himself, he makes each distinct with broad strokes
After Sugan's two successful but expensive large scale productions last season in the new Roberts Studio next door in the Calderwood Pavilion, this intimate effort is a strong start to an interesting season. Their network of local artists should help keep their award-winning effort to provide a voice for Celtic theatre in the Boston area going strong for seasons to come.