By some miracle, Ireland's long agony seems to have ended with the current power-sharing agreement between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army. This deal, achieved in the last days of Tony Blair's government, may be the British prime minister's best and most enduring achievement. But while the conflict lasted, people living in certain areas of Belfast were like those living in war zones today (the Palestinians, for instance): the men dead, in prison or fighting among themselves; the children traumatized and suffering nightmares; violence and alcoholism in the homes; and the women trying in their various ways to carry on. The four women of Rona Munro's evocative, elliptical play Bold Girls do exactly that. They gossip, bicker, joke and reminisce, go out for an occasional evening of booze and games, do their best to shelter and care for their children, and fill their lives with humdrum chores and small diversions.
At the heart of the play is Marie, who takes in washing and feeds the hungry — whether it be her neighbors or the sparrows, pigeons and starlings she loves because they represent trash wildlife, ordinary and overlooked and doing whatever's required to survive. Marie remembers her dead husband, Michael, in romanticized terms and tells her children nightly that he's still watching over them. Cassie, Marie's neighbor, keeps herself skinny on a diet of booze. She's frantic with boredom and hates her imprisoned husband, and his imminent release has her contemplating murder or flight. Cassie lives with her mother, Nora, who mitigates her feeling that her life is out of control by buying peach-colored fabric that she can't afford to spruce up her house. The women's street is haunted by Deirdre, a teenager whom Marie first mistakes for a ghost because she looks so like the dead Michael. Deirdre is a lost waif, mad and sad and perhaps violent, soaked by rain. In her quest to enter the other women's world, she tries on their lives, stealing clothes, ripping at their dreams.
On one level, Bold Girls is an ordinary domestic drama, filled with the usual jealousies and betrayals. Cassie and Nora fight like mothers and daughters everywhere — over Cassie's clothes and behavior, Nora's prudery. And eventually, of course, we learn of secrets and griefs in Marie's marriage to Michael. But on another level, Bold Girls is like Plato's cave: It reveals the horror of war not directly, but through the shadows it casts.
It's a marvelously written play, subtle and strong, textured, filled with intriguing rhythms and four strong characters who are clearly delineated. It's also an interesting choice for Crossroads Theater, part of the spanking new Crossroads at Five Points. The space is both a gentrification project and a celebration of the grand historical neighborhood that's almost been erased by gentrification, a place where blues and jazz greats once played and which surely evokes the Mississippi crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the Devil. The area still throbs with a certain energy. In this sense, a play about another people who struggled to survive and maintain their identity, and who perhaps still stand at a crossroads waiting for transformation — a people with a historical tradition of meeting at a crossroads to dance — is an excellent choice.
Unfortunately, the acting in Anthony Powell's production isn't uniformly effective. Elizabeth Rose is so entirely wrong for the role of an impoverished Irishwoman as to be distracting, even though she gives Cassie her emotional all. Stephanie Jones's performance as Nora works intermittently, but she, too, has believability problems. For most of the evening, you're hyper-conscious of the fact that these two women are acting. Fortunately, Rita Broderick's Marie possesses kindliness and a low-key good humor. And though it's clear that Jessica Austgen isn't a teenager, the intensity of her Deirdre provides a shot of pure electricity. The last scene belongs to Marie and Deirdre; it represents a sad and incomplete healing, but a healing, nonetheless, and it's good to have it vibrating quietly in your thoughts as you leave.
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