at the Mercury Theater
In the opening lines of Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt notes, "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." But as writer-performer Geraldine Hughes's multicharacter solo show makes plain, a miserable Northern Irish Catholic childhood trumps McCourt's childhood in Limerick. The kid living upstairs from McCourt didn't get his head blown off in a bombing.
Hughes has been living in the United States almost continuously since 1989, but like every good Irish expat writer since Joyce, she clearly has a need to confront the demons of her native land. According to a program note for Belfast Blues, that need was galvanized by the September 11 attacks and the pending battle in Afghanistan: Hughes knows about life in a war zone. She lived as a child in Divis Flats, one of the worst housing projects in Belfast and a hotbed of IRA activity. Later her family moved to a more comfortable home, but it was only two blocks from the ironically named "peace line"--a wall separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. She saw things no kid should have to witness, and it's a testament to her courage and character that she's able to tell her story with so much wit, compassion, and charm.
In recent years Irish dramatists from the north and south of the island have split pretty cleanly along gender lines. The Republic has largely exported male playwrights who tend to focus on violence: long-simmering family disputes (Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West), brutal criminal activity (Conor McPherson's The Good Thief), and grotesque Tarantino-like gore (Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie). Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, women playwrights have had the field almost entirely to themselves since at least 1985, when Anne Devlin's Ourselves Alone provided an incendiary look at the 1981 IRA hunger strike in Long Kesh Prison. Marie Jones's most popular play--the 2001 Broadway show Stones in His Pockets--explores one of Hughes's themes: the effect of a Hollywood film on the aspirations of Irish locals.
Like Hughes, Jones creates dozens of characters, and they're portrayed by only two actors. But Hughes is the kid who didn't just dream about escaping to LA--she made it. She appeared in a 1984 made-for-American-TV movie about kids from Belfast, Children in the Crossfire, and in the process won the hearts of the film's director, George Schaefer, and her costar, Charles Haid. They later helped pay her way to UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, and Haid directed Belfast Blues.
One of the problems with the piece is that it's so consistently focused on Hughes that we lose a sense of the larger community around her, made up in any case of rather familiar types: Hughes's long-suffering mother, for example, and marginally employed father, who has a taste for pints and the ponies. The more than 20 supporting characters occasionally feel like they've come from Belfast central casting as well. There's the squinty-eyed, absentminded cabdriver Eddie, who speeds Hughes's mother to the hospital when she's in labor with Geraldine and maintains an avuncular interest in the child afterward. There's a chain-smoking, hard-as-nails, heart-of-gold neighbor, Margaret. And there's the strict but kindly nun who sends Geraldine to the audition that wins her a role in Children in the Crossfire.
Hughes excels at snapshot moments like the death of the neighbor boy. And she conveys well some of the more embarrassing incidents from her childhood, including a bout of urinary incontinence that she attributes to traumatic stress. But her ability as a performer to shift quickly between characters is mirrored by a tendency as a writer to introduce--then drop--subjects worthy of more exploration. Like Devlin, she writes about the Long Kesh hunger strike, in which ten men with IRA connections starved themselves to death while attempting to gain status as political prisoners. This sobering section--well illustrated, as is much of the piece, by grainy photos projected on the grim brick backdrop of Jonathan Christman's set--is followed by a story about Hughes coming home to find a feast of fish-and-chips because one of her father's horses has actually won. There's an instinctive, poignant connection between the hunger of the Catholics in Northern Ireland for freedom, peace, and justice and a child's simple joy at receiving a rare treat. But though we sense Hughes's sympathy with the hunger strikers, she doesn't allow them to have an impact on her own story.
In fact Hughes doesn't give us a lot of insight into her politics despite all the details about what "the troubles" have done to Belfast. She winkingly suggests that her father was a well-respected IRA sympathizer if not an active member, and she talks about how her mother unwillingly carried a bomb to an IRA man in the neighborhood. Yet she's not without empathy for the Brits--she describes looking into the faces of the soldiers outside Divis Flats and being shocked at how young they are. Nor does she spare her Catholic peers. After Hughes returned from making Children in the Crossfire, kids in her old neighborhood taunted and assaulted her for being a "film star." Though this section captures the peculiar Irish Catholic genius for turning on one's own, it's difficult to gauge the effect their jealousy had on Hughes.
I don't think Hughes's relative lack of investment in others' stories is a product of ego. After all, this isn't a vanity project--she's writing about an astonishingly difficult childhood whose elements of poverty, crime, and discrimination have significant cultural resonance. Perhaps she's chosen to focus on herself because that's what she knows best--and for a first-time playwright she's done a masterful job of weaving together the voices of people she obviously loves. She can act the hell out of this material, and her piece is remarkably free of cheap sentiment. Still, she seems a little afraid of confronting her tale's darker shadows. At one point she rhapsodizes about director Schaefer's "clean, soapy, American" scent during their first interview. Now, however, like the Northern Irish women playwrights who've preceded her, Hughes needs to let Belfast's unsavory odor register--and linger.
When: Through 11/28: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4:30 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport