Sinéad Cusack inOur Lady of Sligo
Sinéad Cusack in
Our Lady of Sligo
When nominations for best actress and best featured actress in an Off-Broadway play are announced later this month, at least two of them should be awarded to Sinéad Cusack for her performance in Our Lady of Sligo. One of the great performers of Irish and English drama, Cusack portrays Mai O'Hara, the title character in Sebastian Barry's stirring 1998 play, which is receiving its U.S. premiere through June 4 at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Mai O'Hara is the latest character in Barry's series of works written over the last decade that have found individuals from his family background "hiding in the blood" of 20th-century Ireland; invisible people who were tragically affected by moments of historical change. (In this country, The Steward of Christendom became the best known of the series when the late Donal McCann brought it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997.)

Born in Galway into a comfortable and loving middle-class family in 1900, Mai's entitled future got swept aside by the nationalist fervor of the Sinn Fein revolution, which rendered families like hers as enemies of independence--and thereafter ripped them from the pages of history. As the play opens, decades later, 53-year-old Mai lies in a hospital bed wasting away from the effects of liver cancer, alcohol, and a deeply bitter marriage. Morphine-induced visions carry her back and forth through time on a desperate search for some kind of peace.

As marvelously directed by Max Stafford-Clark (who also directed McCann in Steward of Christendom), these visions of the past collide with the present with sudden ferocity. In fact, it's a wonder that Cusack doesn't collide with herself as each of Mai's personas--from wide-eyed girl to salty, young mother to broken,

From Our Lady of Sligo
From Our Lady of Sligo
pathetic woman--come and go before us in the blink of an eye. If Our Lady of Sligo were a movie, these switches would occur each in one frame, and the different ages of Mai would be rendered by one or two supporting performers and one leading player. But on stage at the Irish Rep, it's all Cusack, who won Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards two years ago for the London production.

Cusack is ably supported by a uniformly strong cast. Jarlath Conroy plays Mai's husband Jack with a touching humanity that invites myriad feelings for him, from hateful scorn to compassion. Sinéad Colreavy, Melinda Page Hamilton, and Tom Lacy as other members of this family, and Andrea Irvine--repeating the role of a merciful nun that she played in London--are all fine. But it is Cusack who fans the coals of this drama, portraying Mai with such vitality that it is impossible not to recognize her as someone from your own family's past--never more so than when she remembers her infant son who, in his seven weeks of life, "had everything perfect: his fingernails, his blossoming hair, and a stomach as soft as a mushroom."

This beautiful recollection, by the way, is a moment from one of the many notoriously long monologues in Our Lady of Sligo. Cusack manages these passages very nicely, even when the play threatens to turn into a one-woman show. Audience members, whether fans of the work or not, might benefit from a quick shot of caffeine beforehand. This is not an action movie. Some people, in fact, have criticized this play--and Steward of Christendom--as being non-theatrical. And indeed, both the earlier play (which also portrays someone who slipped through the cracks of Irish history and is now reflecting back from a death bed) and Our Lady of Sligo do, at times, seem to take place between the scenes of a drama. But it becomes clear in both that a very epic and compelling struggle is taking place on stage: a search for grace and redemption.

As is clear from the current show's title, neither the playwright, nor the director, is shy about scattering in religious images to highlight this subtext. In one scene, Andrea Irvine's Sister washes Mai's feet as they discuss whether humans are really created in God's image. In other moments, Johanna Town's lighting design bathes Mai in a warm glow that mirrors the hospital's stained glass depictions of the Virgin Mary (Julian McGowan is the set designer). And then there's that title--a nickname Mai's daughter (Hamilton) has bestowed upon her in wry obeisance. These are all hints that this is not merely a drama, but a spiritual rite of passage. By evening's end, thanks to the powerful Sinéad Cusack, that journey can move you to tears.