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BWW Reviews: THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM: Same Dance, Different Day

The New Electric Ballroom

Written by Enda Walsh, Directed by Robert Walsh; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Miranda Giurleo; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Dialect Coach, Erika Bailey; Stage Manager, Maureen Lane

CAST (in alphabetical order): Nancy E. Carroll, Adrianne Krstansky, Marya Lowry, Derry Woodhouse

Performances through August 15 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or

Superlative acting, intense staging, and timeless themes are the hallmarks of The New Electric Ballroom, Enda Walsh's 2010 Obie Award-winning play now receiving its New England Premiere at Gloucester Stage Company under the direction of Interim Artistic Director Robert Walsh. Its setting in a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland permeates the story with indigenous peculiarities, but resonates with the realities of life in any little coastal community where gossip and fish tales are the order of the day.

Imagine what your life would have been like if you had met Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, or Elvis Presley at the height of their popularity. I'm not talking about a casual event, like getting an autograph or being in a room full of zealous fans, but actually having shared an intimate, private encounter. Swoon-worthy, right? Still, chances are that while it would hold a place of high honor in your memory bank, it would not have defined you or consumed you for decades hence. Unless you suffered from the same inability to break free from the past as the two older sisters in Walsh's play.

Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) and Clara (Marya Lowry), both in their sixties, are prisoners of time, each fixated on an adolescent moment with their teen idol, a rock and roll singer at the local dance hall. With the assistance of their younger sister, 40-year old Ada (Adrianne Krstansky), they relive their experiences in a daily ritual that includes donning the clothes and makeup of their youth in a macabre exercise to return to the past. With background sounds and music playing from a cassette recorder, their hypnotic spoken recitatives give them comfort and security while denying them any semblance of a present or a future. Like the title character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Breda and Clara fear stepping outside of their familiar personae, leaving them little choice but to repeat their patterns of behavior and conversation over and over again.

Although Breda and Clara never venture out of their cave-like home (designed by Jenna McFarland Lord), Ada works at the local fish-packing plant. She has an ambiguous relationship with the fishmonger Patsy (Derry Woodhouse), whose daily visits to their house with his tubs of fish both interrupt and become part of their routine. He is as much a lost soul as are the sisters, simultaneously welcoming and shrinking from their attention, whether it is demeaning or tender. He is a pawn in their family chess game, but his value increases significantly when he becomes the possible knight in a sparkly blue suit who can save Ada from her sisters' fate.

Each of the actors has their moment in the spotlight (literally, as the speeches made in flashbacks occur in a cone of light designed by Russ Swift), captivating us and yanking our heartstrings as the longing and loneliness come pouring out in Walsh's poetic language. Carroll uses her trademark deadpan delivery to great effect, and veers into vitriol in some of her scenes with Lowry, but lets us see beneath the surface to discover Breda's deep pain to earn our empathy. Clara is more naturally sympathetic, and Lowry conveys her innocence, her need for attention, and her undying spark of hope. Krstansky often says more when her character is being nonverbal; observing her sisters from the shadows with her heavily-lidded eyes, staring into the distance from her single bed, and intently listening to Patsy's inspirational vision for their future. Woodhouse calmly plods along as the pliable Patsy, willing to come and go as commanded by the sisters, but he performs a one-eighty after they administer a cleansing sponge bath and dress him in new clothes. It is a highlight of the play when the suit turns him into a new man and a pretty good rock star.

Director Walsh is like a maestro conducting an orchestra, fluidly moving the actors from one scene to the next, while incorporating all of the pauses and crescendos that comprise the rhythm of playwright Walsh's fugue-like script. The sound design by Arshan Gailus figures prominently, from the seagulls and drums we hear at the start of the show, to the background recorded music in the sisters' memories, to an unexpected live song that is transforming. Miranda Giurleo's costumes for Breda and Clara differentiate between the past and present, youth and old age, by using vibrant colors and fun designs for the former and faded, muted fabrics for the latter.

As with many dark comedies, you're not always sure when it is appropriate to laugh, but there are light moments mingling with the human tragedy and these four actors masterfully squeeze the humor out of the tube onto the canvas. They have analyzed their characters and the relationships between them in order to paint authentic portrayals of the siblings and their strange symbiosis. The New Electric Ballroom cannot be categorized simply nor easily explained, partly because it is non-linear and because it is part allegory. At the post-show talkback, even as they expressed their enjoyment, some members of the audience wondered if they understood certain aspects of the story. If one subscribes to the theory that theater should challenge you and the measure of a good play is walking out with a lot of questions, then Walsh has done his job.

Photo credit: Gary Ng (Marya Lowry, Adrianne Krstansky, Derry Woodhouse, Nancy E. Carroll)

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