Pictured above: Clara (Marya Lowry) puts the finishing touches on Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) as Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) lends support. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)
“By their nature people are talkers,” declares Breda, one of three sisters who live their cloistered lives behind the closed door of a cottage on the rugged Irish seacoast. But for Breda and her sister Clara, who have withdrawn from the world and lassoed their younger sister, Ada, into joining them, talking is more than an innate trait: it is also the glue that fixes them to each other and to a shared adolescent moment forty years ago that was so painful and humiliating, it literally stopped their developmental clock.
In Gloucester Stage’s splendid production of Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom,” playing through August 15, director Robert Walsh (no relation) casts a believable, macabre spell over a cramped room where memory reigns and lives are unlived.
Breda, played with her usual spot-on gestures and intonation by the stellar Nancy E. Carroll, was the village “bad girl” in her youth. When a teen idol singer came to the local1950’s dance hall, the New Electric Ballroom, she, along with all the other young girls trapped in the fishing village, dreamed of escaping their dismal fate by latching onto his coattails. Her younger and more innocent sister Clara (an equally convincing Marya Lowry) fell under the same spell. The two, however, did more than just dream; they acted.
Both went to his dressing room after the performance, believing his sweet talk and promises. Both suffered unspeakable grief and mortification when they were rejected. However, rather than picking themselves up and carrying on, something in them snapped, tethering them to that moment for the rest of their lives.
Now in their sixties, the sisters spend their day as they have everyday for the last forty years: by reenacting every anguished moment of that encounter. Their younger sister, Ada (Adrianne Krstansky, heartbreakingly understated), who is in her forties and works at the local fish-packing plant, is stage manager and costume and sound designer for their play within a play.
Above: Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) square off over tea time. (Photo Credit: Gary Ng)
Each day, Breda and Clara ceremonially don the clothes and make up they wore that fateful night in a ghoulish reminder of Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” In what feels like a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and a sadistic sacred sacrament, they take turns describing in painful detail the events of that night and then relive the shame and disappointment that followed. They exist in a snow globe, hermetically sealed in a blizzard of debilitating emotion. When Breda declares to the exhausted Clara, “It’s time for you to rest and then we’ll start over,” all hope for a different path leeches away.
At right: L to R: Patsy (Derry Woodhouse) the fishmonger makes a point with Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) as Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) look on. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)
Patsy (Derry Woodhouse), a fishmonger and the only visitor the sisters have, is a pivotal character in the play, coming to the sisters out of loneliness and a yearning to connect to another human being, however flawed and weird. “In a town of this size, we all have our place and mine was to have no purpose,” he states matter-of-factly. He is both endearing and pathetic as he withstands Breda’s abuse on the faintest possibility that she might invite him in.
When she and Clara finally do just that, the audience and Ada eagerly await Ada’s release from her sisters’ weird spell. This reviewer will not risk being branded a “spoiler” by revealing what happens, but the crucial moments showcase Mr. Woodhouse’s acting chops and bond the four characters in a surprising and indelible way.
The play is not as dreary as it might sound. The strong cast ably keeps the play grounded, despite its tendency to drift into farce and allegory. Under Robert Walsh’s direction and with Jenna McFarland Lord’s economical yet complete set, the characters are alive despite their suspension in time. And once again, Gloucester Stage rises above its summer theater peers, staging the sponge bath scene with real soap and water (and a nearly naked Patsy).
Enda Walsh has penned a smart, funny and lyrical work that subtly reveals its deeper message in a way that lingers and intensifies long after the curtain has come down. Highly stylized, the language at times evokes a dream world, where reality and fantasy merge.
Walsh, who authored the musical Once, garnered the OBIE Playwriting Award, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and the Irish Times Best New Play Award for “The New Electric Ballroom.” With its New England premiere, the Gloucester Stage celebrates yet another home run in its superlative 36th season.
“The New Electric Ballroom” runs through August 15 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.