Review: Word for Word’s “Irish Stories” at Z Below (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

stories

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Two of Ireland’s most famous writers, Emma Donoghue and Colm Toibin, have written short stories that follow the paths of two notable women writers. Word for Word, true to their name, have made two separate short plays of them, using the complete text of the stories, but dramatized, word for word.

In “Night Vision,” Donoghue has given us the early country life of young Frances Browne (1816-1870), an Irish peasant girl, “The Blind Poetess of Donegal.”

In the second story/play, “Silence,” Toibin offers a tale of adultery from the early married life of Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), the Irish aristocrat and rebel, who kept her secrets about men and love hidden for a long time.

The two contemporary Irish writers, both nominated for Oscars for their screenplays in 2015, are living abroad right now, in Canada and in New York. Word for Word has selected these stories about two female writers who faced harsh social repression in the mid- and late-nineteenth century. At opposite ends of the social hierarchy, Franny Browne and Isabella Gregory struggled with poverty and elitism, respectively. They both must deal with the oppression of girls and women, with unequal education and acceptance, with mean-spirited patriarchy and colonialism. Although both women were at first denied the right to learn and speak out, they each found a way to create a unique voice.

The superb Word for Word team tells the two starkly contrasting stories verbatim, while recreating Victorian manners. In the first, “Night Vision,” set in rural Donegal in the 1820s. We see the blind country girl, Franny (Rosie Hallett), feeling her way into the darkness of the fields at night, her first foray on her own at age nine. Franny, a poor peasant girl, has never left her family of a dozen brothers and sisters. But she is driven to explore the woods and the streams, until her two brothers, played by Rudy Guerrero and Richard Farrell, “save” her. Donoghue’s rich Irish language rings out in the voices of each character, embodying the fiction in multiple voices.

The family is crowded into a cabin and the kids sleeps in a big, raucous bed, all together. They are a loving family: Father (Robert Sicular), Mother (Patricia Silver), brothers and sisters, and Tabby the cat (Stephanie Hunt). Mr. McGranahan (Guerrero), the generous schoolteacher, dares to invite the blind Franny to school with her brothers and sisters, in a touching scene in the rural one-room schoolhouse. But his efforts to educate the girl are thwarted by the rude Scottish Minister (Farrell), who cannot conceive of a blind peasant girl in the classroom. With so many strikes against her, the preacher denounces her as a Biblical “abomination.” So much for education.

By bringing the story to life, soon, we too can see with Franny’s remarkable “Night Vision.” The young Frances Browne, awestruck and obedient, still pursues her books and learning at home. Her Father (Sicular) struggles to help his afflicted child, and her Mother (Silver) brings warmth and affection to the girl’s confusion. Each actor plays several passionate period roles in this Irish country tale, rich with brogues. Rosie Hallett’s Franny is charming and witty. Donoghue gives us the making of a poet and fairy tale storyteller, against all odds. Director Becca Wolf does a lyrical job with the poetic Irish narrative about “the blind poetess of Donegal.”

In Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” the events between Lady Gregory (Stephanie Hunt), her older husband Lord William Gregory (Richard Farrell), and her younger poetic lover, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (Rudy Guerrero) take place in the 1880 to 1890s. We have moved from humble Irish peasants to pretentious English and Irish lords and ladies. Toibin takes us swiftly to the interior life of the legendary Irish rebel, Lady Gregory, while still in her married and stifled years. Her husband has “saved” her from the life of a non-entity; so now she is the fashionable, loyal helpmate to the nearly impotent Lord Gregory, a noted Parliamentarian and former Governor of Ceylon. She does her duty, silently, but takes brilliant notes on the gentry’s brittle manners.

What we hear on the stage is her inner voice from Toibin’s story, revealing what goes on in the mind of a late Victorian woman with great intelligence, insight, and sensitivity. Stephanie Hunt’s Lady Gregory is powerful, restrained, and omniscient, as she treads the shoals of misogynistic Victorian rules. Hunt’s embodiment of the writer’s objectivity and awareness is a masterpiece in itself. Although Lady G. cannot voice her secret thoughts and feelings aloud, Hunt brings them alive in Word for Word’s dramatic settings.

When Lord Gregory takes his wife on a trip to Egypt, they meet Blunt (Guerrero) and his arrogant wife Lady Anne Blunt (Rosie Hallett). We are thrilled to find Lady Gregory’s repressed sensuality ready to burst forth. She engages in a slowly-building love affair with the seductive and exotic Blunt, thrillingly played by Guerrero, who opens the doors of sex for her. Their prolonged affair, drawn from her letters and poems, remained a literary secret for many years, although her poems get published by a delightful bit of trickery on her part. The choreography of their love-making, the younger man and older woman, is stunningly directed by Jim Cave, who brings each actor to the fore in a carrousel of sensual and striking scenes.

After her husband’s death, at a swank dinner party of politicians and aristocrats, Lady Gregory half-reveals her secret affair to the writer Henry James, delightfully played by Robert Sicular. Coibin gets us deep into the hypocrisy of the upper classes, especially the dominant Anglo-Irish who still ruled Ireland at this time. The dramatized story brings life to writerly and artistic questions, focusing on Lady G’s superb and superhuman “silence.” Word for Word fulfills their mission of bringing stories to life brilliantly, as ever. Lady G. becomes a noted Irish rebel, the friend and colleague of W.B. Yeats, and a founder of the Abbey Theater.

There’s much more to Lady G’s story, and you have to go to Z-Space on Florida Street to find out how a peasant girl, who is blind and beloved, and a perceptive rebellious aristocrat found ways to thrive as artists in patriarchal Victorian England and Ireland.

If you want to find out how women can survive and blossom under terrible conditions, becoming independent writers, thinkers, and rebels, these plays will delight you, as they did me.

“Stories: Emma Donoghue ‘Night Vision’ & Colm Toibin ‘Silence,’” plays at Z Below through April 3, 2016. For further information, click here

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“Night Vision” Director: Becca Wolff. “Silence” Director: Jim Cave. Stage Manager: David A. Young. Scenic Design: Jacquelyn Scott. Lighting Design: Jeff Rowlings. Costume Design: Callie Floor. Sound Design: Brian Hickey. Props Artisan: Devon LaBelle. Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer.

“Night Vision”: Scottish Minister: Richard Farrell. Mr. McGranahan: Rudy Guerrero. Franny: Rosie Hallett. Tabby/Ensemble: Stephanie Hunt. Father: Robert Sicular. Mother: Patricia Silver.
“Silence”: Lord William Gregory: Richard Farrell. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: Rudy Guerrero. Lady Anne Blunt: Rosie Hallett. Lady Gregory: Stephanie Hunt. Henry James: Robert Sicular. Lady Layard: Patricia Silver.

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