My Oh Mai
One gains an interesting perspective on a play based (however loosely) on the ancient tragedy, Electra, by Sophocles, when one watches in the company of a first generation Greek. The angst, anger, and adultery that run through Marina Carr's "The Mai" are certainly appropriate, my companion concluded, but where's the bloody body? If a play finds its roots in a Greek tragedy, somebody has to die.
"The Mai," by modern Irish playwright Marina Carr, and performed by an excellent ensemble of actors at The Strand theater, is set not in Argos but in an ornate manorial home (the illusion created by a huge chalk drawn mural on theater's walls) in Ireland on "Owl Lake."
The focus of the play is "The Mai," a tall, lissome redhead played by Amelia Adams who, in the opening act, is swathed in a white flowing costume befitting a Greek tragic heroine. Her name says much about her character-she is not merely Mai, but "THE" Mai, like a royal title. Her sisters, Connie (Jessica Baker), proper and businesslike in her demeanor and attire, and the blue-haired Beck (April Rejman) cannot match The Mai in her beauty, nor her pain, though each has a portion of their own.
The Mai, we learned, married Robert (Jonathan Sachsman), a composer and cellist, who, for reasons never specifically defined, leaves The Mai and her children for five years, only to return to The Mai, who greets him as though he'd been gone for a weekend business trip.
It is here one must suspend one's disbelief for one to accept that The Mai, after so many years of living successfully on her own, building a magnificent estate, raising her children as a single parent, would happily accept Robert's flowers and gifts, welcoming him back with open arms. At one point in the play, the 100-year-old Grandma Fraochlan (Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler), remarks that the world is divided into two halves--those who put their children first, and those who care most for their lover. The Mai would appear to fall in the latter category, but it is love poorly placed as Robert quickly reverts to old habits, having an affair and making no effort to conceal it from his wife.
The play at this point becomes a tableau of Irish family dysfunction as old wounds are reopened, decades-old grudges abound, not to mention a generous supply of whisky, Mulberry wine and a ubiquitous opium pipe that is passed casually about like a box of chocolates.
Like a defective gene passed down from generation to generation, we learn of how each woman, from the century old grandmother to The Mai and her siblings, were raised to believe in a life that's "huge," epic, the stuff of "wild dreams" and made believable by the curse of "hope." It is the Mai's dream of a perfect love that drives her to build her "fairy tale" home and allows her to take back Robert whom she casts in her life's play as Prince Charming even though he's really just a toad.
Serving as the Greek chorus in the play is Millie (Brenda Badger), the Mai's daughter, who vacillates from 11-year-old to full-grown woman, reminiscing about her time growing up on Owl Lake. Millie provides important exposition and stories about the play's characters, but the audience would be able to learn more if Ms. Badger had spoken at less brisk a pace as neither myself nor my theater companion could follow more than half of what she was saying.
While my companion yearned for blood, the only knives piercing hearts in "The Mai" are of the metaphorical design, the only deaths, the characters' dreams. Puritanical plain-Jane-librarian-spinster-style aunts Julie (Nancy Linden) and Agnes (Lucie Poirier) run afoul of Grandma Fraochlan, an Emerald Isle version of Gypsy Rose Lee and the Unsinkable Molly Brown, who's free spirited if not hedonistic tendencies make her a symbol of life itself--ironic in that she is the oldest character in the play. Grandma Fraochlan's love for "the 9-fingerEd Fisherman," lost at sea scores of years before, appears to be the only love truly consummated and cherished. Robert and The Mai's relationship is an abortion; Connie's has no flame at all, and Beck bounces from relationship to relationship and now soon to be divorced.
The Strand is known for producing works that are by women, for or about women, and there is certainly a strong feminist bent to "The Mai." Connie remarks how, growing up, her driving force was "to get a man, get a man," but now that she had one, had to wonder "what's the big deal?" Sachsman's Robert Is the only male character in the play and the least fully developed; he literally plays The Mai like his cello in a powerfully romantic gesture one moment, then is cursing her the next. Why did he leave? Why did he return? What makes him tick? We never hear it from him. And I think it is not by accident that Mr. Sachsman has been cast in this role being somewhat shorter than most of the women on stage, particularly the notably tall and swan-like Ms. Adams. Like his physical stature, Robert Is a small man who cannot possibly live up to the "huge life" imagined by The Mai.
Despite this play's tragic core, there is considerable comic relief, particularly in the scenes featuring Ms. Leimkuhler as Grandma Fraochlan, daughter of "a duchess and the sultan of Spain," who is afforded many of the play's best lines. Lamenting whether she is "paradise material," she tells of a dream of where she and Satan are the only ones in Hell, and having a grand old time with the Devil. One must also take notice of any character whose first appearance on stage involves her hefting in a large, oversized oar...the last remaining memento of her lost beloved.
"The Mai" ends somewhat abruptly--my play companion noted that the audience was unsure of whether to clap- and one wonders what will happen next. Millie, we know, has left Owl Lake, but speaks of still struggling to build a life that isn't tainted by the experience. Will she break the genetic link to a chain of unrealistic expectations that makes life forever disappointing and unfulfilling? Carr places a great deal of blame on "hope," but hope is never a bad thing--it is merely a tool for surviving. The mistake is made when one invests hope in the wrong cause, or person, or dream...as the women of this play learn only too well.
"The Mai" continues its run at The Strand, 1823 N. Charles Street, now through May 1st, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 25th at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students, seniors and "BROKE." For more information, call 443-874-4917 or visit www.strandtheatercompany.org.