Context is everything. At least that's the impression I had on leaving The Actors Company Theatre revival of Frank Marcus's 1965 multiple prize-winning play, The Killing of Sister George, at the Beckett.
It's the only explanation I could find for the production's seeming merely bizarre now since it had been so effective when it first played in London and then was transferred to Broadway in 1966 with original cast members, including Beryl Reid and Eileen Atkins.
At the time its depiction of lesbian couple June Buckridge (Caitlin O'Connell here) and Alice "Childie" McNaught (Margot White), in a crisis also involving Mrs. Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), was groundbreaking, shocking. Yes, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour had preceded it, but Hellman had practiced prevalent 1930s discretion on introducing her drama of a closeted couple at a girls school.
By the 1960s and with the sexual revolution exploding Marcus felt no similar need to observe evolving manners and mores. So he brazenly depicted butch June--also known as Sister George for the role she's inhabited for six years on a soap opera called Applehurst--tyrannizing the excruciatingly child-like Childie both verbally and physically.
Marcus focuses on the couple over a few late September and early October weeks. That's when Buckhurst first suspects Sister George is about to be axed from the soapera and then learns further about her discouraging prospects through a series of visits from Mrs. Mercy Croft, a BBC muckymuck who also looks as if she's taking a shine to Childie. Ms. Croft even appears to have eyes for Childie's doll collection (at least 15 adorn Narelle Sissons's playroom set), featuring Childie's favorite, Emmeline.
(Samantha Shoffner is the props designer, and she's probably the one who rounded up the dolls, although likely not from a personal collection.)
When The Killing of Sister George was first seen, it may have seemed that the June-Alice relationship was a peek into not uncommon hidden lives. In the intervening years, however, more naturalistic plays about gay women have appeared, with the result that The Killing of Sister George now registers as almost comically exaggerated, even surreal.
Yes, perhaps relationships as outlandish as the one June and Alice--Sister George and Childie--share existed then and still do. Possibly, playwright Marcus, who'd written for radio then, based his acclaimed work on women he knew. Yet today, watching these histrionic shenanigans is like looking at hysterical characters through the wrong end of a telescope. What they're up to seems as if it's occurring in a far off land.
This isn't to say that segments of The Killing of Sister George aren't occasionally gripping. At one point during the time June and Alice are observed, there's a costume ball for which they're preparing. They plan to impersonate Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and, gotten up like the legendary screen clowns, they present a routine that has audience appeal.
The fourth figure in the proceedings is their Devonshire Street, London neighbor, the clairvoyant, Madame Xenia (Dana Smith-Croll). Garbed by set designer-costumer Sissons in glittery pink chiffon and bobbed pink wig, Smith-Croll looks like Patti LuPone doing a Barbra Streisand imitation. Now there's something to amuse the stoniest, weirded-outest on-looker. By the way, at no point is Smith-Croll asked to sing.
All four players, directed vigorously by Drew Barr, have fit themselves neatly into their roles. O'Connell's June/Sister George is a clever blend of tough lover fraying at the edges as her career unravels and she's threatened with obscurity and abandonment.
White's Alice/Childie, first seen in billowing nightie and sewing something for one of her beloved dolls, plays regression effectively. Harris's Mrs. Mercy Croft is quietly smarmy in the best way, and Smith-Croll's Madame Xenia floats ominously in her chiffon.
If you've ever taken your seat on a bus, train or plane to begin a long or long-ish journey and had a seatmate compulsively unburden himself of his life story without your asking--who hasn't suffered the experience?--then you'll immediately recognize the three characters in Conor McPherson's Port Authority. Its the first entry in the Irish Repertory Theatre's temporary DR2 Theatre residency.
The trio, who rattle on about themselves in alternating monologues, are young Kevin (James Russell), middle-age-crisis Dermot (Billy Carter) and senior citizen Joe (Peter Maloney), and it doesn't take too long for audience members who aren't dismally slow on the uptake to understand they represent the three ages of man and their anxious concerns during those phases.
Port Authority was written in 2001 and first done in New York City in 2008 at the Atlantic, where I now realize I saw it. It's a measure of my response that I had pretty much forgotten the work. Undoubtedly, I reacted to it then as I did this time by zoning in and out. And isn't that how anyone might respond to unbidden stories in actual Port Authority-like situations?
It may be that depending on our moods and inclinations, some strangers' stories will engage us more than others. Perhaps these three meandering tales will capture the imaginations of other theatergoers, whereas they left me listening closely for most but not all of them. If I had to choose, I'd say Joe's observations about his slowing-down life struck me as the most pertinent for general interest.
McPherson's earlier entries--not so much these days--were monologues, which I am reluctant to call plays. That's just semantics, of course. Nevertheless, there's a hitch to a play like Port Authority, where three staggered monologues unfold.
Perhaps it's a minor problem: Spectators, aware of two actors remaining silent in dimmed light while the third has the brighter part of the floor, can be thrown out of the, uh, play intermittently. They may catch themselves wondering how the mum thesps are passing time while sitting passively and listening to the same speeches every performance. Isn't there something unfair about asking actors to endure such idle stage time?
Oh, well, Maloney,, Carter and Russell show no signs of frustration that isn't relevant to the characters they're playing. Russell is the most kinetic, often sitting on the wall that set designer Charlie Corcoran puts behind the bench on which the three mostly perch. At times, Russell even walks on the wall. Carter's Dermot is the most restless, and Carter nicely hones that restlessness. Maloney has a cane that his Joe sometimes uses and sometime doesn't as he roams the stage. One of Manhattan's most reliable character actors, Maloney--remarkable in last season's Outside Mullingar--proves his value again here.
When monologues rule, directors have a particular challenge, and it's no different for Ciaran O'Reilly in this assignment. Static action is the enemy, and so directors have to figure out ways to keep cast members on the move. Sometimes audiences can't help noticing the constant back-and-forth, but O'Reilly keeps it to a minimum. Good for him.