BWW Reviews: Quotidian's Luminous, Haunting American Premiere of McPherson's THE VEIL
Conor McPherson is nothing if not haunted; his plays feature everything supernatural up to and including the Devil himself. "I have always felt that the theatre is the perfect place to contemplate the unknown," he once wrote, "I want to invite the darkness that surrounds the stage on to the stage in order to illuminate all that is truly important to us." Small wonder, then, that just a few years ago he wrote and directed The Veil, a play that is haunted by the dead almost from its first moments, and which features a séance as its centerpiece.
Now, nearly three years after its London opening, Washington's own Quotidian Theatre Company offers us the American premiere of a play that should soon find itself in regular rotation nation-wide. Quotidian, with its reputation for understated yet compelling shows, has gone all-out with this production and done Mr. McPherson proud. The period setting alone is worth the ticket; Director Jack Sbarbori has truly outdone himself from the brass door-stops to the lanterns that illuminate this finely-appointed haunted house.
Set in the early 1800's, McPherson portrays an English aristocratic family, the Lambrokes, whose Irish estate is in serious decline. The patriarch of the family hung himself in the very room where the action takes place, and his daughter Hannah (who discovered her father's body when just a girl) has been terrified by spiritual presences ever since. Her mother Lady Madeleine, desperate for financial security, is about to marry her daughter off to a rich Marquis in England; perhaps just as important, she knows it's essential to get her daughter away from the house and its horrors. But instead of her mother, Hannah is to be escorted to her wedding in England by Reverend Berkeley, a priest of dubious spirituality who arrives at the Lambroke estate with an even more dubious companion, the utterly dissolute poet Charles Audelle. Berkeley's interest in spiritual matters takes a very dark turn indeed, and with fatal consequences.
What makes The Veil a real pleasure is that for the first time, McPherson has written substantive roles for women-in fact, the majority of the cast are female, a marked departure from the usual 'buncha guys and their palaver' we have come to expect from him and other Irish playwrights. Michele Osherow gives a strong performance as Lady Madeleine Lambroke, whose cold exterior can barely contain the vulnerability and anxiety within. Chelsea Mayo is luminous as her daughter Hannah, a young woman who has seen entirely too much of life's dark side to ever be truly at peace. Hannah's future, if she doesn't leave soon, is mapped out in the blank, almost child-like stare of "Grandie" her grandmother, played here with quiet fascination by Jane Squier Bruns.
Meanwhile the Irish house staff provides much of the humor for the night-Stephanie Mumford is hilarious as senior housekeeper Mrs. Goulding, with her stew-thick brogue and her talent for fixing truly addictive--i.e., alcohol-laden--punch, which apparently can cure everything (-and if it doesn't, who cares?). The junior servant, Clare Wallace, is played affectingly by Christine Alexander, a young girl of humble origins but-like so many Irish of that day and since-armed with a plan to move away and make a better life for herself. She even has the audacity to court the estate manager William Fingal, played here with dash and earthiness by Michael Avolio. Wallace's pursuit of Fingal provides just the touch of romance we need to keep from falling into the mawkishness we associate with the usual ghost story.
Steve LaRoque, as Reverend Berkeley, is an imposing presence and Berkeley's insistence on investigating-perhaps exorcising-the spirits of the house is the dramatic highlight of the show. As his bibulous companion Charles Audelle, Quotidian regular John Decker gives us the gentle, seemingly mild-mannered drunk of yore, but one who in this case harbors a terrible secret. His addictions and his dark past catch up with him soon enough.
Quotidian, for those who haven't yet been to see them at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, is a small-house operation, and I mean that literally: Jack Sbarbori and his wife Stephanie Mumford not only act and direct, they also do the bulk of the set, sound, prop and even costume designs. In other theatres, this combination of roles would lead to mediocre results but Quotidian audiences know that Sbarbori and Mumford set a very high bar for themselves, and with each production they demonstrate both their love for theatre and their passion for design.
The Veil is fascinating on many levels-not least because, in addition to the ghosts that haunt the stage, the action is haunted by very real people, i.e., the poverty-striken Irish tenants who can barely survive, let alone pay the rent on their crumbling tenement flats. The occasional mention of strikes, violence, and disaster remind us that you don't have to believe in ghosts to be haunted by the misfortunes of others. The time of the play, the 1820's, is not that far from the deadly 1840's, when the Irish were deliberately starved by the British in the wake of a blight that wiped out their domestic potato crop.
This being its first US production, it is fully appropriate that The Veil be heard and seen in its entirety; it will be interesting to see whether future productions will follow Quotidian's lead, because as with so many realistic plays the conversation rambles along chaotically-by design, but chaotically. And some directors may be less patient with the way that McPherson wanders off the mark, even if the wandering is at least half the point.
Running Time: 2 Hours, 40 minutes with one intermissino
"The Veil" plays July 18-August 17 at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets phone 1-800-838-3006, extension 1, or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.