According to legend, when director and screenwriter George Seaton visited veteran actor Edmund Gwenn as he lay on his deathbed, he said to Gwenn “This must be terribly difficult for you.” Gwenn replied: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Marina Carr’s “Woman and Scarecrow” suggests that quite the opposite is true.
The play takes place during the final moments of life for a middle-aged woman, where we learn that her youthful passions and unlimited potential were never realized due to a miserable marriage. Immobile and on her deathbed in rural Ireland, Woman reflects on the disappointment that has been her bitter and unsatisfying existence, and agonizes over every aspect of her pending demise right down to the shoes she’s to wear at her funeral.
Death, we are told, is most certainly hard. But like fellow Irish writers Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats, Carr approaches death with a twinkle in her eye, a dark and deliciously absurd sense of humor, and an immense talent for poetic expression. “Woman and Scarecrow” is as funny and lyrical as it is profound and powerful.
Much of the comedy comes from Woman’s interactions with her spiritual counterpart, an enigmatic phantom called Scarecrow, who shares the stage as her conscience or soul. Scarecrow relentlessly diminishes Woman’s morphine-enhanced flair for the romantic by placing her sorry life into proper, callous and often comedic perspective.
Their constant give and take and Woman’s final preparations for death are interrupted only by her philandering husband Him’s brief and disinterested visits to her bedside, Auntie Ah’s unwanted offering of Catholicism as comfort and counseling, and a feathered Death’s impatient cries emanating from the armoire at the far end of the room.
Mamaí Theatre’s staging of this complex play, like the names of the characters in it – Woman, Him, Scarecrow, and Auntie Ah – could not be simpler. The floor that is the theater’s performance space contains nothing but the bed in which Woman lays, the armoire in which Death lays in wait, and a chair where Scarecrow sits when not wandering the room.
At first glance, it appears as if director Pandora Robertson has done this play a disservice by undermining all the grand metaphysical and drug-induced imagery that pervades Carr’s often epic language.
There is no scenic spectacle depicting death’s intrusion into and growing domination over the realm of the living.
Rather than hellish or hallucinogenic hues and soundtracks, minor adjustments in lighting and sound suggest the passage of time and Woman’s phasing in and out of consciousness. Makeup and costuming are realistic and subtle.
As such, any plans by the playwright to turn Woman into something mythic, metaphorical or more than what meets the eye are neutralized by the play’s relatively bare-boned presentation.
The payoff for the deceptive simplicity offered by Robertson, scenic/costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib, and lighting designer Robert Peck is that the acting – and not just the play – is showcased in this production. This has become a defining characteristic of a Mamaí play and, in the case of this one, is absolutely justified for two very good reasons: Derdriu Ring as Woman and Bernadette Clemens as Scarecrow.
Their stellar performances complement one another at every turn, from the matching Irish accents (which comes to Ring naturally), to the organic and fluid presentation of Carr’s excessive and widely imaginative dialogue, to keeping all that is comedic and cataclysmic on a perfectly even keel. For such a morose subject as the one addressed in “Woman and Scarecrow,” the production is never morbid. For so much comedy, the production never loses its true north.
Without the distraction of elaborate staging, all eyes are glued on Ring and Clemens, which is where they most surely belong.
James Lally as Him and Mary Jane Nottage as Auntie Ah do well to capture the essence of their rather one-dimensional characters, but do not keep pace with Ring and Clemens, particularly where the accent and organic presentation are concerned.
Anyone who loves great theater done well should see this show. And bring others so they can see what great theater done well looks like.
WHAT: “Woman and Scarecrow”
WHERE: Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street, Tremont
WHEN: Through November 16
TICKETS: $10 - $20, go to www.mamaitheatreco.org or call 216-382-5146