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Ourselves Alone


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Bailiwick Repertory

It's easy enough to see where Anne Devlin's Ourselves Alone is going. Unfortunately, it's also pretty easy to see it'll never get there.

Set in Belfast, at the troubled heart of the Troubles, Devlin's play offers a critique of revolutionary macho. It wants to show how desperate men, like those who join the endless struggle for Irish independence, construct a war-zone society: a community organized around the concept of perpetual siege, where warriors enforce a de facto tyranny; where culture and family life are consecrated to feeding the cause, and every normal impulse from sex to singing is suborned and enlisted. Where women suffer a double oppression--subjugated as much by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and and lovers as by the Brits. Ourselves Alone tries to expose the ugliness of the Belfast blood knot.

But it fails. Though Devlin sees to it that the basic point of the exercise is perfectly clear, she can't seem to make that point vivid in theatrical terms. Her lumbering progress through the lives of three Irish women is remarkable only in its peculiar ability to be both too dry and too sudsy, overly obvious and badly convoluted, all at once.

The women involved are a couple of sisters, Frieda and Josie, and their sister-in-law, Donna. Members of a die-hard IRA family whose genealogy can be traced across royal prisons and republican barricades, the three of them are bound up--each in her own way--by the imperatives of the blood knot. Donna tries hard to keep the home fires burning for her jailbird husband. Josie unsexes herself like Lady Macbeth, becoming a no-nonsense soldier of the cause. And Frieda simply wants out.

Less a family than a demographic sample, Donna, Josie, and Frieda exemplify the futility of a Belfast woman's situation. They demonstrate how her love and loyalty become the means by which she's disarmed and subjugated; how her every choice leads unwillingly but inevitably back to war.

There's an almost algebraic crispness to the demonstration. Donna's fidelity is rebuffed--and her infidelity, too; Josie allows herself the luxury of a little trust, only to find her trust betrayed; and Frieda learns that on the other side of the barricades the men are still men and the police still police. You can't miss the symmetry of Devlin's conceit.

Except that Devlin tries, perversely, to hide it. Ourselves Alone would work nicely as a parable, or a Brechtian teaching play. Its symmetry and subject matter demand a harsh, frank, simple telling. But Devlin lays on the weepy flourishes and soapy distractions. She takes the play's basic virtue--its hard core of feminist critique, its exposition of one community's suffering--and covers it over with a soft blanket of melodrama. Leaving a bulge that's neither harsh, frank, nor simple, just sort of obvious.

What might have been a woman's play in the political sense ends up coming across as a woman's play in the Barbara Stanwyck sense.

Director Kyle Donnelly tries to pull back the blanket a bit. With the help of James Dardenne's corrugated and graffitied set, as well as Larry Hart's assertive sound design, she forces a little politicized distance in between audience and play. But it's a losing effort, especially insofar as she can't rely very heavily on the skills of her actors. Kate Buddeke evinces a nice easiness as Donna, and Skipp Sudduth exhibits the necessary charm as a mysterious Englishman--but Michele Messmer overshoots Frieda with a performance that fairly screams "sweet and sad," and Jan Lucas just hasn't the skill she needs to play Josie. These difficulties, plus a basic structural clunkiness in Devlin's writing--awkward expository speeches, self-conscious poetry, and badly shaped scenes--sink Ourselves Alone.

Which is too bad, because the essential perception behind this mess of a play is terribly important. I tend to take issues like Irish independence very seriously, placing myself on whatever side I figure is just. But watching Ourselves Alone, I finally realized how trivial those issues actually are next to the everyday suffering they cause. I saw how the violent men of Ulster-- not to mention those of the West Bank or Johannesburg--distort the good realities of making love and raising children. And I understood that next to those good realities, the violent men's struggles are self-interested and small. As the epigraph from Ourselves Alone says, "There are more important things than war. All the things that nobody dies for." I just wish I could have learned all this through the play rather than in spite of it.

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