Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The House Keeper at Project Arts Centre, Dublin

In Morna Regan’s new play for Rough Magic, disease is strip-mined for its metaphoric potential. Corruption runs not just in the blood but is embedded in the genes: a chromosomal jinx, a lethal legacy.

Mary, a mother of three young boys, out of a job, her home recently repossessed, and without even the money to put gas in her car, has decided to claw a little something back. She has developed a fixation with Beth, a local woman who lives alone in a vast old Manhattan brownstone, cushioned by inherited wealth – a woman who looks straight through Mary whenever they pass one another on the street – and in a moment of desperation, pushed to the brink by poverty and fearful for her children’s future, she attempts to stage an occupation. She decides that she will move herself and her family in to one of the empty rooms of Beth’s towering, dusty town house. The bank took her home and now she’s the one doing the taking.

Having seemingly set up her play to act a microcosmic exploration of social division – the ‘haves’ pitched against the ‘have-nots’ – Regan takes pleasure in flipping the situation on its head. For, as it turns out Beth is not alone in her brownstone. She shares it with her ailing husband, Hal, who is slowly, very slowly, being consumed by disease and refuses any other nurse but her. In Regan’s play the sins of the fathers, the taint of generations, takes the form of a (fictional) genetic disorder called Leon Scallick’s Disease which impairs both motor function and cognitive ability. Hal spasms and tics, he struggles to finish his sentences and has been rendered doubly incontinent, life leaking out of him through “every orifice,” but the condition has not rendered him incapable of being a mean old bastard.

Hal and Beth are locked in a cycle of mutual punishment. By staying alive and staying together they’ve turned their home, a building which – much like Hal’s condition – has been in his family for decades, into a torture chamber. Hal has a barbed tongue and a cruel heart, but he is physically disintegrating; Beth – literally – holds the keys to his salvation close to her chest. She controls his flow of medication, she administers sedative release. But Mary’s presence has exploded their claustrophobic existence, she provides a glimpse of escape to them both: for Beth a chance to finally walk away, for Hal a chance to end his pain – and his life.

Mary is resistant to being co-opted in this way, despite Hal’s declaration that “the only reason you and people like you are honest is that you’ve never had the opportunity to be anything else.” Hal believes that everyone has a price and that everyone creams a little off the top, given the chance.

Regan twists things further still, shifting the power dynamics between the three, throwing new information into the mix. This is engaging to begin with but Regan overextends things, laying on one twist too far. The play is a revised version of a shorter piece originally developed for the 2008 1st Irish Festival in New York and despite a running time of 90 minutes, there are times towards the end when Lynne Parker’s production feels like it could have been tighter.

There are also moments that feel a little contrived: those conveniently unseen children, for one, dozing in the car below, and the cocktail of anti-spasmodic and sedative medication administered to Hal which rids him of his more challenging symptoms, while – crucially – keeping him eloquent, lucid and full of spite.

With his magnificent baritone bellow, Robert O’Mahoney is wonderfully leonine and imposing as Hal, though he is rather too physically robust for a man who supposedly cannot manage stairs or even swallow unaided. Cathy Belton’s Mary convincingly grapples with the situation she finds herself in, as a woman repeatedly forced to consider her moral boundaries and the lengths to which she is willing to go, while Ingrid Craigie is suitably cool and pragmatic as Beth, complicit in her own torment and as life-hardened as Mary, though in her own polished, privileged way.

The play is potent in its depiction of the frustration caused by seeing what little you have slip away from you while others coast through life, or at least seem to, insulated against hardship. But in setting the play in Manhattan (complete with occasionally wavering accents) rather than in Ireland or the UK, a degree of remove is imposed which allows Regan to play with the psychological ramifications of her scenario without it ever feeling too raw or too real. But while Regan’s humour is often ink-black and bladed and the play initially has a fist-like grip, it sinks a little under the weight of its own metaphorical baggage and loosens its hold all too soon.
Reviewed for Exeunt

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