Schubert’s “Notturno,” playing at the start of Tom Murphy’s meditative production of his 1985 play Bailegangáire, does more than merely set the mood for what follows. It also seems to anticipate the structure of the play’s centerpiece—a long story that a bedridden old woman begins again and again, gathering momentum before suddenly stopping short, returning to first phrases when new ones won’t come, her repetitions somehow never threatening her belief that she is imparting fresh news.
The story tells of a laughing contest in the Irish town of Bailegangáire, but it’s easy for a listener to lose track of, and even interest in, this tale as the more compelling transformations of the teller unfold before us. Mommo (as she’s known) retreats from the humiliations of her illness—wet sheets, batteries of pills, tea that’s gone cold—to the consolations of narrative, visibly warming as she knits incidents together. Her deteriorating mind is incapable of making most other connections. She doesn’t always recognize her two grown granddaughters, Mary and Dolly. They reciprocate either by ignoring her oft-told tale or mouthing its words behind her back. Yet for all the seeming triviality of her recollection, it slowly becomes clear that it has expanded to fill the space that would otherwise be controlled by other, more painful memories.
Indeed, much of Bailegangáire shows Mommo resisting rather than merely forgetting the past, maintaining the integrity of this one anecdote as if it were a dam. With every telling, she uses the same words and wanders down the same digressions. She thickens her sentences with phrases in Gaelic, then leavens them with pure sound—a wonderful repertoire of laughs. Her granddaughters complain that she never finishes her story, but they don’t see that Mommo’s refusal of endings is the most lucid thing about her. For all her evident pleasure is storytelling, Mommo intuits the horrifying thing about linear narrative: After resurrecting the past, it forces the teller to bury it.
Ever since his first play, A Whistle in the Dark, Murphy has drawn us to characters who are similarly cut off from even their intimates, and who simultaneously beckon and reject attention. Bailegangáire seems, at first, to depict the most severe extension of this condition: a character alienated even from her own, earlier self. Yet the play is richer for frustrating that expectation. No mere sentimental portrait of a senile but feisty woman, Murphy’s play suggests that the worst losses are suffered by the granddaughters. Preoccupied with their grandmother, they can avoid facing their own dissolution. Mary and Dolly’s various compromises—an unwise marriage and unwelcome pregnancy, a forsaken career—leave them, like Mommo, unable to recognize themselves, or to understand what links their once vital past to this cramped, mean present.
On the Irish Rep stage, such severed connections are apparent even when the characters ignore them. The actors occupy a space striped by invisible borders. In the background are large projected photographs from Mommo’s young adulthood. In the middle distance sits her bed, an island of domesticity in a nearly barren room. In the foreground, the granddaughters often taunt and commiserate with each other about the newest insults to the family’s dignity. All three spaces seem already historical, as impassable as geological layers. On such a landscape, then, it’s startling when the characters address one another across these dividing lines. Pauline Flanagan, heroic as she is when climbing her story, is even more arresting in doing something as simple as insisting Mary leave the room. For their part, the granddaughters communicate best in silence—Terry Donnelly, as Mary, keeping her back straight and her pace brisk when all else seems beyond her control, Babo Harrison’s Dolly fixing her sister with a stare that begs sympathy for the guilt she won’t concede. They end this lavishly verbal play in a tableau that pays tribute to the reviving power of sheer touch—all three women joined, at last, in one space to form an image of a kinship that no story could have summoned.
Charlayne Woodard also turns to narrative to retrieve identity—in her case, a self thought lost in the bargains made with fame. Her play In Real Life tells the actress’s own story of arriving in New York eager for a “serious” theater career only to find herself cast in Ain’t Misbehavin’. What to others might seem a big break becomes for her a prison worse than obscurity. Her father echoes her own misgivings when, on opening night, he says, “I can’t stand seeing any black person giving it up like that just to entertain somebody.” Life away from Broadway offers no more dignity. As Woodard’s celebrity grows, she is drawn to a Jamaican playwright whose drug habit and sexism eventually pollute the safe haven he once offered her.
Slipping in and out of different voices as she tells this story, Woodard deftly outwits all those who, in the past, had imposed identities on her. But despite her buoyancy, her play is ultimately both too narrow and overly familiar. Theatrical shocks like her father’s judgment are rare. More common are softer anecdotes that, however pleasant, don’t rise beyond shoptalk or down-and-out clichés. They end up making merely ordinary a woman who yearns to be freed from type.