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A CurtainUp Review

When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout
By Les Gutman
It has taken fourteen years to get this, Sharman Macdonald's first play, from London to New York. I can't imagine why. It is a sharp, naughty but exceptionally thoughtful play. Better late than never, I suppose, and better still in this fine production by The John Montgomery Theatre Company. When it premiered, Macdonald won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. On the heels of the recent "Irish invasion" New York has experienced, it's clear that here we have a Scottish playwright who deserves just as much of our attention.

The year is 1983, and Fiona (Robin Morse), now in her early thirties, has returned to the rocky eastern coast of Scotland with her mother, Morag (Roberta Maxwell). To her surprise, her childhood friend, Vari (Juliet Pritner), has also been invited. Gliding effortlessly between the present and the girls' adolescence, this delicately crafted memory play explores the parallel growing pains of mother and daughter.

Growing up, as depicted here, is a reconciliation of the conflict between what one learns from parents and what one learns from friends. With sex and religion as the two main issues, it is not surprising that neither source is particularly reliable. But both make it funny, often darkly so.

Fiona's relationship with her mother is chilly and uncertain. When her parents divorce and their attention strays, a sense of unwantedness matures into alienation. Attitudes tend to wander to extremes. The seaside reunion has a slightly begrudging "maybe it's time to take another look" aspect, put in further context by the very different lives the two childhood friends have made for themselves. Unlike the bleak mother-daughter picture painted in last season's most-heralded Irish import, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (reviewed by CurtainUp), rays of hope peek out from behind the noir hue here. Relationships have hard edges, but they are not cruel. They ring remarkably true.

The assembled cast would be considered outstanding anywhere, but seems a special find in John Montgomery's intimate off-off Broadway space. Roberta Maxwell has moved seamlessly from the Irish coast in The Public Theater's The Cripple of Inishmaan last season to Macdonald's Scottish coast. Whether spouting off unwanted advice ("a bit of lipstick won't break the bank", or rejoicing in the discovery that a sex life need not die with a first marriage or hurling soon-to-be regretted invective at Fiona, Maxwell's performance is unforgettable. Although there is a temptation to compare this mother to Ms. Manahan's Tony-winning performance in Leenane, I will just say that this mother is a far more complex character, and that Maxwell does not shrink from any of its intricacy.

Robin Morse is her equal, convincingly assaying Fiona's development from an early adolescent first learning about her body to a lost fifteen-year old who decides to have a baby to forstall abandonment to an unmarried thirty-something woman who defensively has transformed loneliness into a sense of independence. At each level, Morse finds the rawest nerve; her performance is rendered with astonishing credibility.

Juliet Pritner rounds out this threesome accentuating Maxwell's great strength and Morse's verity. Having served as Fiona's sexual mentor in adolescence, Vari returns now as a picture of the woman that Fiona is not: a wife and mother who "doesn't have time" for the causes with which Fiona has populated her life. Pritner makes Vari vivacious and self-aware, but with assured convictions that do not fully eclipse Vari's doubts or shortcomings. In a sense, the teacher has become the student.
Patricia Minskoff directs with a firm but gentle hand. This is a play not only with many scenes but also varied ones. Shifts in time and place are the rule not the exception. That they occur clearly and effortlessly in the tiny confines of the space provided is a significant accomplishment, to the credit not only of the director but of the designers as well. Strong signals keep us on track: Morag's hat with a red scarf defines the present tense scenes; shifts in lighting evoke changing scenic environments; etc. Macdonald has even written an underwater scene, which is staged here with particular cunning and skill.

The play is not without its weak moments. The relationship of Fiona and Vari is not as fully illuminated as it could be. A nuclear reactor debate, introduced presumably for early-eighties currency, seems an oddly unnecessary detour. Some will find the ending too unresolved (I found it pleasingly realistic) while others may be off-put by the casual way in which the adolescent female body is used as a source of humor. These weaknesses notwithstanding, the story is an engaging one. Its characters are both interesting and well-developed. Finally, it's fun, one of those hidden gems that can make theater-going an adventure. Go see it during its brief end-of-summer run.

by Sharman Macdonald 
Directed by Patricia Minskoff 
with Roberta Maxwell, Robin Morse, Juliet Pritner and Fred Koehler 
Scenic Design: Charles Townsend Wittreich, Jr. 
Costume Design: Anne Guay 
Lighting Design: John Tees III 
Sound Design: Raymond D. Schilke 
The John Montgomery Theatre, 134 West 26th (6/7 AV) (212) 627 - 7076 
opened August 8 closes August 29 
Reviewed by Les Gutman August 9, 1998

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