Woman and Scarecrow is far more mesmerizing than depressing

Marina Carr's Woman and Scarecrow is about the impending death of a character she calls Woman, a woman of spirit and passion trapped in a miserable marriage in rural Ireland. The story isn't linear, but pieces of the protagonist's life emerge through the dialogue. Her mother was given to volcanic rages; after her death in childbirth, Woman was raised by a coldly religious aunt. She eventually married a man whom she didn't particularly care for (here called Him) and had eight children — apparently to avoid examining her life too closely and to stifle her longing for freedom. She had affairs, but ended the one that might have brought her happiness. Now she lies on her deathbed, and her time is very short.

Accompanying Woman is an enigmatic figure called Scarecrow. Scarecrow is Woman's etheric other, her double, her alter ego, perhaps a fantasy created by morphine, perhaps something preternatural. Death waits in the closet, occasionally knocking against its door; he's dark and feathered; maybe he's the crow that Scarecrow is meant to keep at bay. Ever since I saw a raven kill a baby robin it snatched from the nest, striking the naked squirming thing again and again while the parent robins helplessly attempted diversion, I've understood just what is so terrifying about birds of prey, and why Macduff, learning that his wife and children have been murdered by Macbeth, cries out, "O hell-kite." Certainly the thing in the closet is as savage and unyielding as the death-dealing bird I saw.

But despite all mythic and supernatural trappings, this Woman is neither cipher nor metaphor. She's intensely individualistic and intensely complicated, though we never fully understand her bitterness and rage, her cold black humor. Perhaps she's in the straits she's now in because she should have lived more fully and courageously — certainly Scarecrow seems to think so. But perhaps her problem is that she failed to focus on the dense particularity of her life, its sometimes tender dailiness, the children she may have conceived as a buffer against loneliness, and who certainly wore her out but who also fill her with love. Her husband, whose mistress is awaiting Woman's death — though not in the house, Him insists — is utterly contemptible, but when he speaks of the inner doors Woman held closed against him, it sounds like truth. Not to Scarecrow, however, who's unswayed by Woman's persistent love for her husband. "Old friend," Woman calls Him at one point, "old battle-weary foe." Or is she talking to Scarecrow?

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Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through October 30, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com.

Beyond the door, Woman's family waits, her relatives, her children, the priest. Whatever her mistakes, no matter how much she's been wronged, we sense that Woman's predicament is universal — that, to a greater or lesser extent, most of us will die in a state of regret, terror and confusion. It would be almost unbearable to watch this angry unraveling if it didn't have a moment of redemption, and there is a gentleness to the play's final scene, though it's hard to tell whether the halo of light and the ethereal music are the playwright's doing — Carr seems to be telling us to treasure those fleeting and occasional moments of transcendence — or the idea of director Erica Sarzin-Borrillo.

Rita Broderick gives everything she's got to the role of Woman, and the result is a moving, passionate performance. There's a high, thin note of hysteria to most of her utterances, so Paige Lynn Larson has wisely chosen to make Scarecrow smoother and calmer-voiced. Scarecrow's words are often cruel, but in Larson's hands the character is more compassionate protector than judge. Lori Hansen is all pinched-mouth stiffness as Auntie Ah, and Tom Borrillo is perfectly cast as Him, except that it's hard to understand some of his words amid the glottal stops of his attempted Irish accent.

The writing is brilliant, original and imaginative, with Woman, for example, going from a terror-stricken imagining of rats treading on her face and feasting on her entrails in the first act to detailed instructions — both spiteful and affectionate — for her funeral in the second. With all its fierce humor and feeling, the production winds up far more mesmerizing than depressing.

 
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