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Eclipsed
by Patricia Burke Brogan
Directed by Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
June 8, 2018

The Black Mirror Theatre Company’s recent production was a two-weekend showcase featuring two plays on the same subject, billed as “A Tragedy Two Ways”. I previously reviewed the first play in this series, the excellent Magdalen by Erin Layton. That was a one-woman show, while the second production in the series is an ensemble drama, Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed, featuring an impressive cast and a strong, memorable setting.

This story is a fictionalized account informed by playwright Brogan’s personal experience as a novice nun in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Told in flashback, the vividly realized story focuses on a group of young women who have been incarcerated in one such facility, put there primarily for having children out of wedlock or for being born under the “wrong” circumstances. The story begins as a young woman (Scarlett O’Shaughnessy), who was put up for adoption and raised in America, comes to the now-closed laundry in search of her birth mother, Brigit (Carly Uding), who was a “penitant” there in the 1960s. She’s given a box of mementoes by the now-elderly Nellie-Nora (Ivey March), who was also confined there alongside Brigit. The story then flashes back to show the working and living conditions in the convent-run laundry, which was presided over by the stern, uncompromising Mother Victoria (Jane Abling), assisted by earnest young novice Sister Virginia (Frederica Lewis), who increasingly questions the harsh treatment of the young women under her charge. The rebellious Brigit and milder-mannered Nellie-Nora were joined by the imaginative, Elvis-obsessed Mandy (Alison Linderer) and the haunted, determined Cathy (Shannon Lampkin), whose asthma is made worse by the conditions in the laundry, and who is set on getting out so that she can see the twin daughters that are being kept from her at a local orphanage. These four are soon joined by Juliet, who grew up at the orphanage, the daughter of a former inmate. Drama is mixed with moments of humor as the girls bond and try their best to find moments of meaning under the persistent eye of Mother Victoria and the increasing sympathy of Sister Virginia, who’s personal conflict only grows as she tries improve conditions for the girls but is seen more often than not as more of an enemy than an ally. With a well-defined structure, richly drawn characters, and atmospheric use of period music, this play is somewhat surprising in its portrayal, in a way less soul-crushingly bleak than the situation presented in Magdalen, but tragic all the same. The moments of hope and humanity here serve to highlight the tragedy of keeping these young girls confined simply because they were seen as “damaged” and unwanted by society.

The show is simply staged. No credit is given for scenic design, but the set is an effective respresentation of the work room in the laundry, with occasional, simply set moments in Mother Victoria’s office. There’s stark, striking lighting design by Darren Thompson and excellent props by Jane Abling. The period details–a radio, and iron, the period costumes–help to establish the time and place, along with the soundtrack of 60s music blended with religious chants. All of these details serve the excellent script and strong cast. This is truly and ensemble play, and the chemistry and sense of bonding among the girls is well-realized, with excellent performances all around. Standouts include Linderer’s starstruck Mandy, Uding’s confrontational Brigit, Lewis’s conflicted Sister Virginia, and Lampkin’s ever-determined Cathy. Everyone is strong, though, and the vivid characterizations are the highlight of this thought-provoking production.

“A Tragedy Two-Ways” was an inventive, poignant way to draw attention to the brutal realities of life in the Magdalene laundries. Both plays featured memorable performances and characterizations, and a powerful, affecting remembrance of these generations of women who spent their lives in these places. Eclipsed, like Magdalen, only ran for one weekend, but it was a memorable and thought-provoking theatrical experience.

 

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Magdalen
Written and Performed by Erin Layton
Developed and Directed by Julie Kline
Balck Mirror Theatre Company
May 31, 2018

St. Louis native Erin Layton has returned to her hometown in a poignant, fascinating production hosted by Black Mirror Productions as a part of a cycle they’re calling “A Tragedy Two Ways”. Next week’s production, Eclipsed, will also present the same subject–Ireland’s infamous Magdalene laundries–from a different perspective. This week, Layton takes center stage with her one-woman show, telling a story of life in a particular laundry from the points of view of various characters, all portrayed by Layton herself in a remarkable, tour-de-force performance.

The Magdalene laundries, often operated by Catholic orders of nuns, were places where women in various circumstances were sent to work and subject to extremely strict and even brutal rules and codes of conduct, including a large degree of shaming couched in religious terminology. In Magdalen, Layton tells the story of several of these women–from Elinor, a young girl with mental and physical challenges; to Rita, who has had a child out of wedlock; to the former madame of a brothel whose workers were rounded up and brought to the laundry. There’s also Child of Mary, another “penitant” who outlines the rules to the new workers and has been chosen to become a sister in the Magdalen order. It’s her frequent visits to confession with the weary but strident Father Patrick that serve as a framework for much of the story, which is really more of a flashback, initially introduced in present day by Reid, an older Irish man who grew up near the convent, which is now closed and has been turned into a hostel.

Through the course of the roughly one hour running time, a cohesive, heartwrenching story is told, as Layton vividly presents a host of characters, from the aforementioned to the stern, even smug Reverend mother, to some belligerent schoolboys who harrass the penitants. Layton’s skill as a playwright is apparent in that the story moves quickly and jumps from situation to situation, but all the elements are assembled into a coherent, powerfully affecting story. Her characterization is also remarkable, as simple shifts in posture and voice make clear the distinctions between the characters–from the brash boys to the strong-willed Rita, to the earnest, conflicted Child of Mary, to the imperious Mother Superior. It’s a truly impressive performance, bringing to life the stark realities and horror of the situation in this institution in a highly personal, effective way.

The staging is simple and well-paced, supporting Layton’s striking performance, with excellent use of sound, designed by Janie Bullard, as well. The only real drawback to this production is that it’s only running for one weekend. It’s an intense, thought-provoking, well-structured and exquisitely acted production that has been performed in various places around the world. Now, it’s here but not for long. There’s only one more performance in the run. If you have the chance, Erin Layton’s Magdalen is a definitely worth seeing.

Black Mirror Theatre company is presenting Magdalen at the Kranzberg Arts Center until June 3, 2018.

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