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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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