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|A CurtainUp Review
Our Lady of Sligo
Yes, Our Lady of Sligo is about a woman dying of cancer, but, don't let that stop you from seeing it. With a remarkable performance by Sinéad Cusack and a lyrical script by Sebastian Barry, this is no more a cancer story than Margaret Edson's Wit. Despite the inevitable ending, Ms. Cusack and Mr. Barry take us beyond the confines of the hospital room setting and bring humor to heartbreak. Her performance, which doesn't miss a note on the emotional scale, and Barry's play, with its intersecting family and national history, are as good as any that have come our way this season. Seeing it at the Irish Rep's small theater will draw you in more as participant than observer
The play is essentially a series of bedside encounters between Mai O'Hara (Cusack), her husband Jack (Jarlath Conroy), her daughter Joanie (Melinda Page Hamilton), her beloved Dada (Tom Lacy -- whose forehead was "the map of Australia), and a loving cousin, Maria (Sinéad Colreavy)-- some take place in the present (1953), some are dreamlike sequences from the past.
Mai, who is exactly as old as the century, is dying of liver cancer brought on by alcoholism which was in turn caused by guilt and unrealized expectations. The back and forth shift between present and morphine-induced memories make for a full portrait of Mai, with Cusack effortlessly shifting between the pallid-faced, pain-wracked patient to the lively Galway College student who was the first woman on campus to wear pants and had "blue diamonds of eyes" that defied description even by her geology trained husband. We feel her pain and laugh at her wry humor ("I'm sick of this dying; it's no fun"). Her irascibility and lapses into self delusion, fed by a father who impressed on her that she came from people "who always had a boat to row" -- and, above all, her tenacious hold on life -- defy sentimental pity.
It would be easy to recommend Our Lady of Sligo strictly for Ms. Cusack's performance and Barry's poetic language. Happily, the five actors who rally around her bedside lend able support and flesh out the drama. Jarlath Conroy is particularly good as her partner in a union that began to turn sour when he "drank away their house" and deteriorated completely with the death of their son. Yet his memories, and those of the daughter who calls her "Mammy of the gaps" reveal persistent traces of love, as does one scene when Jack in World War II uniform and Mai dance together. Andrea Irvine, who was also in the play's London production, also stands out with her finely understated performance as the only non-family member, the compassionate nurse.
In addition to the excellence of the ensemble, there's the added scope provided by the meshing of Irish history with this very personal story. As in the entire cycle of Sebastian Barry's histories of his own family (Sligo is the sixth play in this cycle, the best known to Americans being The Steward of Christendom), the frailties of Mae and her family are shown within the larger context of political changes that have dispossessed Irish Catholic middle class families from their anything is possible optimism. Thus we have a story about dying that is all about life, and a story about politics that is all about individual people. Mai's appraisal of the husband who aspired to the local upper-class Protestants is one of a number of astute observations on the effects of the Irish revolution: "Jack tried to turn himself into a sort of British gentleman and by the time he achieved it, death and independence had erased his template. There were no posh Protestants left in Sligo to notice the Catholic butterfly painfully emerged from the dark caterpillar he had been. It probably broke his heart as much as marrying me did."
The Irish Rep is a small venue with a semi-thrust stage. As a rule the small side seating section of the Irish Rep's semi-thrust configuration, makes the small side section the least desirable. However, Max Stafford-Clark's direction and the impeccable acting techniques of Ms. Cusack and her colleagues are such that the audience in the side section is never ignored; in fact, in this production, it probably offers the most intimate, all-engaging seating. The stagecraft is also commendable, especially Johanna Town's sensitive lighting design which throws the paintings of other "Ladies" into focus whenever Mai, the Lady from Sligo, wanders into one of her dreams.
If there's a quibble with the direction, it's with the pacing of the second act which would benefit from some tightening. On balance, however, this is one of those small theatrical gems that will linger in the memory of all who love fine writing and acting.