Playwright: Tom Murphy
At: Irish Repertory at Victory Gardens
Phone: (773) 871-3000; $28-$36
Runs through: Feb. 15
There's an expression in Ireland, 'The crack is good,' referring to lively conversation or story-telling. At Irish Repertory, Bailegangaire ('Bahlya-gan-GAHR-uh') is very good crack indeed, literally, with the great Irish oral tradition at its heart. The story spun by Mommo—a senile ancient crone who spends most of the play sitting in a vast, old bed—is equal parts folklore and family history, and its long-delayed completion has healing power for Mommo and the granddaughters who care for her.
The setting is the west of Ireland in 1984 near Bailegangaire, meaning 'the place without laughter,' Mommo tells us. But it might easily be 1884 in Mommo's old sod house without running water and barely electrified (spot-on scenic design by Eric Appleton, working atmospheric wonders in small quarters, effectively assisted by Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting). Mommo's tale about how the village got its odd name also seems far older than it is, filled with strangers, stormy nights and horse-drawn carts, yet it describes events within the living memory of Momma and her adult granddaughters Mary and Dolly. What actually happened, and how it poisoned the lives of these three women, is a touch obscure and mysterious, but it involved Momma's long-gone husband, a laughing contest at the local pub, the death of big Costello (pronounced 'KAHST-a-loo') and the death of a child. There's rue and bitterness and bite, yet infinite tenderness, in this ghost play of sorts about the loss of memory and too much memory.
Above all, Bailegangaire celebrates the supreme gift of language and the power of words. To be sure, it's talky and not short (two-and-a-half hours with intermission), and viewers will find it either soporific or spellbinding, with no middle ground. For me, the words were a glory to be savored, such as this description of a man laughing: 'Rich rolls of round sound would go flying out of his mouth and into the air.'
To be spellbinding, of course, there must be a spellbinder, and Bailegangaire has that in Mary Ann Thebus, tearing into the roll of a lifetime as Momma. Her long, gray hair and seemingly shrunken body, her eyes that open enormously and then crinkle to sly slits, her thick Irish country accent (your ear must adjust to it), her ease and joy with the rolling waves of words are riveting and pleasurable. As her granddaughter Dolly, Michelle Courvais has the smallest role but draws it forcefully, creating a sharp contrast to her older sister. In the pivotal role of Mary (technically the play's hero), Elizabeth Rich's aura of sadness, and her longing for completion, are palpable. Under the caring direction of Kay Martinovich, all three performances are exemplary and moving and not to be missed.