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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
At the very time when the women's liberation movement burst into the news hundreds of unwed Irish mothers were forced into indentured servitude in the name of piety. Delivered to local convents by relatives who wanted no part of them, the women became penitents in the Magdalene Laundries run by the church. In the name of washing the sins of lust from their souls they also washed the country's laundry and fattened the church coffers. Their children were raised in orphanages or put up for adoption in the United States and other countries.
This dark chapter in church history stretched out over thirty years. It was exposed in a 60 Minutes documentary. It inspired a heart wrenching song, "Magdalene Laundries" recorded by Judy Collins and the Chieftains (. . ."We're trying to get things white as snow/ All of us woe-begotten-daughters/ In the streaming stains/ Of the Magdalene laundries". . .). It also caused a young novitiate, Patricia Burke Brogan, at one of those now infamous laundries to question the practices of the church to which she had pledged her life. Thirty years later, that same novitiate, has translated that experience into a touching heartbreaker of a play.
Where the CBS documentary was a glimpse of an event after the fact. Eclipsed takes us right into the Magdalene laundry to which Ms. Brogan was assigned and brings four of the penitents in her charge to vivid life as they were then -- young passionately alive women forgotten by the outside world, eclipsed from the light of life and human connection. Being a painter as well as a playwright, Ms. Brogan paints a canvas filled with vivid portraits that reveal the full tragedy not only of the penitents but of the emotional price paid by their children and keepers, including the woman who rules this unholy domain with an iron fist and a total lack of compassion.
While the unjust situation prevailing in the harsh world of the convent ends too late to bring light into the eclipsed lives we follow, there are also sufficient moments of countervailing humor and warmth to relieve the heaviness. Nellie-Nora (Fiona Walsh), Cathy (Aedin Moloney) Mandy, (Rosemary Fine) and Brigit (Amy Redmond) emerge as strongly differentiated personalities despite the look alike dull gray washerwoman aprons and heavy shoes they must all wear. Individually and as an ensemble they skillfully mine the lighter scenes, as when they all abandon their chores to dress a mannequin into the Elvis Presley figure of Mandy's fantasies. The affection and kindness shown by the stronger women for the weaker ones is a telling contrast to the rigidity of the convent's administrator, Mother Victoria (Terry Donnelly who manages to convey the insecurity nestled beneath the chillingly authoritarian exterior) to troubled young Sister Virginia (Heather O'Neill as the author's alter ego).
While these playful interludes are needed to leaven the tragedy, ultimately, the play's strength derives from the more painful confrontations: The scene in which Brigit explodes and attacks Sister Virginia whose sympathy she justly finds useless unless backed by action; and in turn Mother Victoria's confrontation with the novitiate after she takes action in the form of writing the Bishop about the terrible conditions in the convent.
To weave the strands of this horrific story into a compelling drama the play is framed in a present day prologue and epilogue in which Brigit's daughter (Erika Rolfsrudt) who was raised in the United States is seen at the closed convent in search for bits of her history. To complete the circle of the effects of this misguided mix of religious righteousness and entrepreneurship, there's an eighth character, Juliet (Jacqueline Kealy), a child of another (unspecified) illegitimate union, raised in the orphanage and now so conditioned to institutionalized life that she voluntarily comes to work in the laundry.
Director Charlotte Moore keeps things moving at a crisp pace though there are a few times when the actors should have been directed to keep the small section to the side of the semi-thrust stage in mind. I noticed at least one scene where the focal character was not within even partial view of people sitting there. Klára Zieglerov has effectively created the play's narrow and claustrophobic world, with strong support by Kirk Bookman's lighting and the music by Murmod, Inc.