Sheila wanted to name her daughter “Debbie,” after the actress Debbie Reynolds, but her husband Eamon didn’t think that sounded very Irish Catholic and insisted that the girl should at least be named after a saint. So Geraldine Hughes came into the world, born into an ordinary working class family in Belfast just at the start of the period of Irish/English conflict known as “The Troubles.” In her compelling autobiographical solo show Belfast Blues, Hughes relates how she and her family tried to live normal lives amidst extremely difficult circumstances.
Hughes has large, bright blue eyes that animate her delightfully expressive face. She slips in and out of the various characters she portrays — her mother, her father, her younger self, and more — with ease. These characterizations may seem too broad or caricaturish at first, but after a very short time, you start to believe in them. This has everything to do with Hughes’ skills as performer and writer. She radiates youthful innocence when describing her first communion, is devastating in a scene where her dying father asks her to make a promise that she knows she won’t be able to keep — and her description of eating a fish and chips sandwich smothered with salt and vinegar is so vivid that it had my mouth watering.
The writer-performer offers enough expository detail about the political situation that she lived through to give her stories context; Hughes knows how to set up a tale to maximize drama and suspense, and takes her time in the telling. With stories both funny and tragic, she paints a very human portrait of a volatile political situation wherein senseless violence and other horrors occurred daily but so, too, did moments of joy and happiness that she still treasures. Strangely, Hughes’ five siblings make only brief appearances in these stories. While I understand the need to limit the scope of her work and the number of characters she portrays, it still seems an odd omission as her brothers and sisters were bound to have been a huge part of her life during the time period that the play covers.
Old photographs and other images are projected on the back wall of the set, illustrating many of Hughes’ tales. (The set, lighting, and digital image design is by Jonathan Christman). They are as much a part of the performance as Hughes herself, giving the production a look akin to a documentary. The sound design by Jonathan Snipes is, for the most part, also effective, although the first burst of gunfire that we hear sounds strangely hollow.
This show has played in London, Belfast, Los Angeles, and Chicago, earning its author well deserved accolades and awards. It has also attracted the attention of such notables as Anjelica Huston, who is one of the producers (along with Allan Buchman/The Culture Project) of the New York production, and Carol Kane, who is credited as contributing director. In a theater season heavy with one-person shows, Belfast Blues manages to be very special.