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A CurtainUp Review
Marion Bridge

Christa Scott-Reed, Henny Russell and Susan Louise O'Connor in Daniel MacIvor's Marion Bridge
Grievous loss, self-pity and yearning are the starting points in Daniel MacIvor's soul-searching play, Marion Bridge, which opened to its American premiere on Thursday at Urban Stages. Three troubled sisters return home to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to care for their dying mother and find they have everything and nothing in common.

We never meet life's victim number one -- the mother who languishes in bed upstairs, barely breathing with half of one lung. Unable to speak, she scribbles on post-it notes, her abbreviated instructions requiring interpretation. Above all, the shattered woman seems to want her daughters to reconcile with her ex-husband who abandoned her for someone perkier. They agree with spiritless dissention. Afterwards, when they rehash their evening spent with the demented, old man and his halter top wearing, cheating wife, one wonders why they couldn't have not gone but said they did.

With varying intensity, the sisters take turns expressing dissatisfaction with their lives. Agnes (Henny Russell), the prodigal daughter ("I'm bad to the bone"), wades through a mid-life crisis strewn with self-loathing and bitter resentment. "I'm old and have nothing," she laments, having achieved little success as an actor. More painful is her memory of having put her child up for adoption -- a source of resentment towards her mother and herself. Louise (Susan Louise O'Conner) lives for television melodramas although she acknowledges they're often lousy. She is so childlike that she cannot make simple decisions without prompting. The tightly laced nun, Theresa (Christa Scott-Reed), wearing the smugness of an evangelical, also cannot hide her fascination with the soaps. Her life is admittedly dreary but her desire to be helpful proves to be a saving grace.

The fascination with soap operas represents the numbing activity of self haters who haven't taken responsibility for their own lives. Pleasing the mother leads to no pleasure for the children. The visit to the father may be rationalized as dutiful behavior, but itís more of an exhumation with the hope of finding a pulse. Even the sisters' disjointed memories of a family holiday in the small town of Marion Bridge portrays how confused even the best of times were. Agnes remembers being bitten by a dog while Theresa remembers her sister playing happily with it. And they deny Louise's claim that she was left behind and missed all the fun. One certainly cannot accuse the sisters or MacIvor of over-determinism.

Through earnest monologues and revealing conversations, we're drawn into three melancholic lives. The portrayals are emotionally honest but as funereal as the piano music we hear between scenes. After the mother dies, the sisters grow more sympathetic and helpful to one another, and finally grow more self-aware and urgent about fulfilling their needs. Louiseís fantasy about driving on the open road (revealed in poignant monologue by OíConner) is finally superseded by actually buying a truck she adores. It is her most significant attempt to please herself in years, and she is happy about it. Agnes takes similar baby steps in locating her grown up child and befriending her, although she does not identify herself.

Carol Bailey's austere scenic design matches the washed out lives under examination. An enticing partial view of the living room contains a soft reclining chair bathed in the flickering lights of an obscured television. We occasionally hear the clamorous dialogue of two former soap opera stars, Jennifer Ferrin and Victor Slezak. The dialogue may be silly, but at least those characters know what they want and go for it.

Such an introspective journey demands a fair amount of attentiveness from the audience, but the worthy collaboration of Susan Fenichellís crisp direction, simple yet effective production values and credible performances by the cast succeed in creating a moving experience of moderate caliber. At times a droopy character study, Marion Bridge nevertheless moves forward relentlessly towards the fulfillment of itís primary theme of self affirmation.

In On It
Never Swim Alone

Playwright: Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Susan Fenichell
Cast: Susan Louise O'Conner (Louise), Christa Scott-Reed (Theresa), Henny Russell (Agnes), Jennifer Ferrin (voice), Victor Slezak (voice)
Scenic and Costume Design: Carol Bailey
Lighting Design: Jorge Arroyo
Original Music and Sound Design: Eric Shim

Running time: 2 hours, one intermission
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th St., 212-868-4444,
From 10/06/05 to 11/13/05
Tickets: $40
Reviewed by Eric Beckson based on October 7th performance
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