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Never in My Lifetime

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NEVER IN MY LIFETIME

Stage Left Theatre

When I was a teenager watching Romeo and Juliet, I was so taken by the passion of the balcony scene I never noticed that Juliet sounds a warning. Struck with sudden doubt, she says, "I have no joy of this contract tonight / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden."

Most actresses treat this sinister foreshadowing as radiantly as the rest of Juliet's emoting, as if Juliet can't see her future. That makes sense if the setting is 16th-century Verona, where civil hate was confined to feuding families. But in Northern Ireland no innocence is permitted; in Belfast Juliet's doubt makes abundant sense.

So it's all the more remarkable that in Never in My Lifetime British playwright Shirley Gee can create a modern Romeo and Juliet, a British Protestant soldier and an Irish Catholic girl whose innocence seems almost as strong as the hatred that surrounds them. Almost--because in this poisoned land innocence is not enough.

Tom is a lonely country boy bored and frightened by his assignment, counting the seconds till his time is up. Tessie is a Belfast girl for whom the church is a refuge from the hard times and quick death outside.

However familiar after Shakespeare, the story of the dangerous love that grows between these young people feels fresh and full: given Gee's keen eye for emotional detail, her lovers matter apart from their literary precedents.

They meet by accident when Tessie helps Tom stanch a nosebleed. She likes his long hands and how he holds things. He's attracted to the sassy way she can be "so quiet and . . . so rude." He gives her a lucky rabbit foot just like his own and with clumsy gallantry covers a sandbag with his handkerchief so that she can sit down. As they embrace, he tries to imagine they're in the Yorkshire that he misses so much. Anywhere but in no-man's-land.

They are hardly fanatics, and whatever mutual distrust they feel comes from habit and fear ("You all sound the same to me," he says). But that distrust can't resist their new, much more real feelings. Slowly they love even their differences. He stops calling her people "Micks" and begins to feel pain as he inflicts it. She stops cringing when she sees a British "squaddie." They are giddy with surprise as they catalog all they have in common.

Gee also provides two pairs of characters who represent the haters and the victims. The victims, helpless witnesses who address the audience, are simply called "wife" and "mother": the first is the wife of Charlie, Tom's soldier buddy; the second is Tessie's mother. Almost matter-of-factly the mother chronicles atrocities she has seen in her neighborhood and in her family. The wife talks of just one horror to come--how Charlie got his head blown open.

The haters are Charlie, a soldier who converts his fear into a generalized paranoia about everyone, and Maire, Tessie's bitter friend. An IRA sympathizer, Maire is the personification of the Irish penchant for worshiping martyrs. Truly believing that those who suffer most will conquer, she can't see beyond the Brits' mangling of her boyfriend or their vicious beating of a friend (which was actually done by Tom in a blind panic, just as Romeo killed Tybalt).

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Never in My Lifetime makes the war around the lovers loom larger than the love that defies it. With bloody particulars Gee suggests just how risky it is for a British soldier and a Catholic girl to make love: both are marked for death. There's no place for them.

Like Romeo and Juliet, this play moves tautly and inevitably toward its ugly end. (Tessie faces a choice that Juliet could never have imagined.) The Belfast conclusion is, if anything, more tragic. There are no crossed messages or missed signals: death is deliberate.

Never in My Lifetime's midwest premiere, an eloquent offering by Stage Left Theatre, is terrific. Dennis McCullough's staging is the dramatic equivalent of gelignite--compassionate in its acting and dead-on in its conjuring up a climate of fear. (The play teems with images of sliced bodies, crushed fingers and heads, mashed and unrecognizable faces, even a harrowing description of the damage done bones and tissue by regulation British firearms. You see and taste what they fear.)

Amid the mutilation, it's amazing to see affection. As the lovers, Steven Farber and Marguerite Hammersley powerfully reinvent it all--the reckless infatuation, the desperate yearning, the scared sex. Farber, who made a stunning debut in DePaul's excellent The Misanthrope at the Blackstone, perfectly catches Tom's contradictions and complexity, his loyalty to a queen he's never seen, and his ardor for one very ordinary girl. Looking like a new Natalie Wood, Hammersley as Tessie is a worthy successor to Wood, sensitive to every quicksilver change in her tortured lover.

As the play's sectarian extremes, Maire and Charlie, Anne Hubbard and Cal Mason never force their rage; it comes right out of the mean world that Gee's words create. Playing the mother and the wife, Debra Rodkin and Page Phillips testify to the blind outrages that connect by sheer unmediated pain a Belfast mother and a London wife.

Making much of a small space, the set by Gary B. Bellis ranges from a neat kitchen to an ugly trench, all surrounded by graffiti and barbed wire. The costumes by Kate Mitchell show how civilian and military clothes change the people inside them, while Julie K. Martino's lighting gives the lovers both reality and make-believe.

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