by Sam Juliano
Irish playwright Sebastian Barry has a gift for language. But in his “western” White Woman Street, which is presently winding down it’s run at the Irish Repetory Theatre, this propensity makes for a bizarre marriage of poetry and monologues. The result is an overload of talk, with incoherent sentences and long passages that are ill-fitted to the stage. Granted, the production’s director Charlotte Moore is more concerned with impressionistic notions, and a meditation on myths and memories, than any kind of historical documentation, and in that sense the show hits it’s mark, even in the narratively lugubrious first half. But this is basically what Barry’s theatre is all about, and his detractors have long maintained that his poetic style is ill-suited to the theatrical form. Theatre goers with a taste beyond standard dialogue, however, are in for a treat.
Had Barry been truly interested in a revisionist western, he might have opted to set White Woman Street in a period and place more archetypal than 1916 Ohio, especially with the employment of dialogue that addresses issues like Indian oppression and cultural displacement. Coincidentally, the rock musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, still running at the Public Theatre, deals with the same issues, and even with distinct satirical underpinnings, there’s a stronger resonance. Barry’s intent is clearly symbolic, as it’s clear enough that his early 20th Century Buckeye state setting is meant to mirror the Easter Uprising in Ireland, and aging Trooper O’Hara’s dream of returning home. In fact, by shifting his focus to America, Barry employs symbols that establish the same type of need to reconnect with the past and establish domestic stability. But it’s difficult to negotiate the disjointed progression, story incoherence, and loquatiousness of the characters. And the thick Irish brogues don’t quite match up with the actors, recalling Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West, where cowboys spoke in Italian.
The characters themselves are ethnically diverse: Blakely is English, Mo Mason is Amish, Nathaniel Yeshow is half-Russian and half-Chinese, and James Miranda is black. They are restless souls, each with their own story, and each with a personal mission. The vaneer is all in place, with the saloons, whiskey peddlers and train robbers all part of the work’s fabric, but the interation and long-winded monologues grow tiresome before the one-quarter point.
When Barry is in his element, which he is most of the time, he’s produced some extraordinary work. His drama Our Lady of Sligo, staged last year, gave the company one of its greatest productions, and his celebrated The Steward of Christendom has enjoyed success worldwide with a slew of stagings. It’s the playwright’s most popular work. But as a renowned novelist and poet, it may not always be an easy task to modulate his work to the theatre, and it’s clear that White Woman Street suffers from a lack of engagement from the outset due to this artistic incompatability.
Charlotte Moore, the enterprising artistic director of the company, serves this production well with some economical sets, including the employment of five tall wooden stools as horses, unvarnished wooden planks, and a convincing saloon, with the long bar. The lighting is particularly eye-catching, especially the use of the yellow moon (employed on the poster adds) and the precise work on the train scene. The sound effects may be standard, but the timing is dead-on, and the costumes contibute to a generally impressive visual design.
The company’s acting is rarely ineffectual, and the three central actors here (Stephen Payne, Greg Mullavey and Gordon Stanley as O’Hara, Blakely and Mo Mason respectively) manage some flavorful histrionics to mitigate the overwrite. All in all White Woman Street sends mixed signals.
It’s a polished production by impassioned professionals, written by a world-class playwright, but because of the lack of writing chemistry, it seems remote and oddly distancing.
Note: I saw ‘White Woman Street’ with Lucille on Wednesday evening, June 9th at the Irish Repetory Theatre in lower Manhattan.. The show ran 95 minutes without intermission. We ate at a local Thai Restaurant during a rainy evening.