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A CurtainUp Review

Bold Girls

My Mummy taught me how to raise my family, how to love them, how to spoil them. Spoil the wee girls with housework and reproaches, the length of their skirts and the colour of their lips: how they sit, how they slouch, how they don't give their fathers peace, how they talk, how they talk back, how they'll come to no good if they carry on like that. They're bold and bad and broken at fourteen, but you love them as much as you love yourself . . . that's why you hurt them so much. . .  Ruin the boys, tell them they're noisy and big and bold, and their boots are too muddy, 'Clear that mess up for me, Cassie.' Tell them to leave their fathers in peace, and come to their mother for a cuddle, tell them they'll always be your own wee man, always your own bold wee man and you love them better than you love their daddy, you love them best of all -- that's why they hurt you so much.
Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald as Deirdre
From the time you climb the steps leading to the home of the 29th St. Rep noted for its low on glitz, high on grit dramas, you are surrounded by images to set the scene for Rona Munro's drama about four "bold " women living in West Belfast, circa 1990. In the lobby there's an exhibit of Diane Green Lent's photos of Northern Ireland captioned with excerpts from interviews by Dorothy Bukantz with women who live on the interface of the dividing line between Catholics and Protestants. But if you're expecting the roar of gun shots and bloody violence, it's clear from the moment you take your seat in the 80-seat theater, that this is a domestic drama.

The set, typifying the sort of cluttered working class environment of other 29th St Rep productions, is a living room-kitchen with toys scattered on the floor and laundry waiting to be pressed and folded spilling all over the place, including the walls on either side of the audience. The volatility of Belfast's political situation that have killed and imprisoned their men does of course affect the lives of the women at the center of Munro's play -- but so do the long standing customs and illusions that have entrapped them in emotional prisons and the media images that promote materialistic escapism rather than real growth and change.

Bold Girls is a play that demands close attention of the viewer. The intermittent sounds of sirens and gunfire not only establish the background but echo the explosions between the women to come. The opening monologue, one of almost a dozen that are interspersed into the play's overriding kitchen-sink realism, hints at a mystery since Deirdre, (Moira MacDonald) its speaker, appears as a ghost-like presence outside the window of the home of Marie (Susan Barrett), where most of the action plays out. Yet, Deirdre's identity and motivation is not all that mysterious, but in fact quite predictable. Instead it's a catalyst for unleashing the pain and anger simmering beneath the daily interactions of Marie who still misses the husband who was killed three years ago, her best friend Cassie (Heidi James) who wishes her husband would never be allowed out of jail and Cassie's mother Nora (Paula Ewin). Those interactions become more intense as the women leave Marie's home for a night out at a disco that goes from the mundane (Marie's winning a kitchen appliance) to a raid by the British and long-kept secrets revealed that will shatter long-held coping mechanisms.

This intermeshing of political, social and personal issues, of realistic dialogue and locale with interior monologues and much symbolism (even the title implies a variety of meanings including brash, bad as in immoral, and brave) also calls for direction that maintains its hold on the mounting tension. Most of all it requires the actors to effortlessly and smoothly shifts between the mundaneness of their characters' daily actions to the painful revelations hidden beneath the daily conversations in which no one is really listening to each other.

While director Ludovica Villar-Hauser has staged the play with commendable attention to detail, the pace flags too often to make for as gripping an evening as one has come to expect from this company. The interior monologues don't work as smoothly as they should. More importantly, she has not been able to help all the actors bring out the nuances needed to make their characters truly bold.

Susan Barrett comes off as a very nice, somewhat naive woman but she never captures the purity of Marie's forgiving and loving nature which embodies the only possibility for optimism in this grim saga of tradition fostered lives of self-delusion. When the illusion to which she has clung for her own and her orphaned children's survival are stripped away, we see but don't fully feel her agony. Heidi James, as Cassie, is more successful in capturing the rebellious spirit of a young woman who dreams of escaping her dreary existence in Belfast, especially once the husband she despises is let out of prison. But for all her tough and ironic talk (Ms. Munro, who's not Irish but Scottish, has a fine ear for tangy vernacular and gives Cassie some of the play's most pungent lines), Cassie's real anger stems from her relationship with Nora (Paula Ewin), the mother who perpetuated the pattern of breaking the bold spirit of daughters and encouraging it in sons (see quote at the top of the page). The scene bringing the long simmering resentments of mother and daughter into the open is full of the fire not always lit elsewhere.

The flaws in this production may fade as the actors settle into the run and Ms Villar-Hauser tightens the pacing. At any rate, if you pay the close attention I already said this play requires from the viewer, you'll find yourself thinking about it long after you've left the theater and admiring Ms. Munro for giving us a play that can also fits her title adjective. She's made good use of "The Troubles" to frame her story of three generations of women. What she's after applies anywhere any time: to show that it's lack of communication and a climate of stubbornly ingrained prejudices prevents understanding, growth and change in both the political and personal arena. Happily we'll have a chance to see Another Munro play soon: Iron, which takes place in an all-woman's prison, is scheduled to begin performances at Manhattan Theatre Club's second stage on October 2nd.

Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser
Cast: 29th St. Rep members Paula Ewin, Heidi James, Moira MacDonald and guest artist Susan Barrett
Set Design: Mark Smyczak
Costume Design: Chris Lione
Lighting Design: Douglas Cox
Sound Design: Tim Cramer
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, plus one 10-minute intermission
29th St Rep 29th Street Rep, 212 W. 29th St. (7/8 Aves) 212-868-4444
9/08/03 to 10/18/03 -- extended to 11/01/03; opening 9/18/03

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 18th performance

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