Despite a grand performance from acclaimed Irish actress Anna Manahan, Declan Hassett's solo play is a plodding and predictable bore.
The production originated at The City Theatre of Dublin, and is being presented at 59E59 Theaters by the Colorado Festival of World Theatre. As the play opens, Martha is celebrating her 70th birthday. As she awaits Mary's arrival, she shares with the audience her memories of growing up in Ireland during the 1950s, as well as other high and low moments in her long life. Martha is a bitter woman, full of regrets. Like her Biblical counterpart, she feels saddled by the drudgery of her life -- the cooking and cleaning that her sister, "holy Mary," doesn't appear to be interested in.
The second act flips the perspective, giving the audience Mary's view on things. As might be expected, many of Martha's assumptions about her sister are incorrect, and Mary also has a radically different take on her childhood and relationship with her parents. The playwright includes a "surprise" twist towards the end of the play, but it feels less surprising than it does overly melodramatic.
Hassett's writing aims for the kind of poetic lyricism that characterizes a number of other Irish playwrights from J.M. Synge to Conor McPherson. However, here it feels forced. "I spin around in a world of regrets, regrets about the past and fearful of the future," says Martha at one point, overemphasizing what's already been stated in plainer terms throughout her monologue. The added verbiage feels distracting and unnecessary. Additionally, the observations the play makes about Irish life seem woefully pedestrian, and its move into darker territory strains credibility.
Manahan does what she can with the material she's given. Her characterizations of the two sisters are effectively different from one another, with Martha as the cruder, more laid-back sibling and Mary as the stiffer, more refined one. However, neither portrayal is limited to those descriptions, as the actress layers in subtler shades to give her characters more nuances. Manahan is most effective in the quieter, more deeply felt segments of the play. Unfortunately, her more strident moments -- such as when she cries out "Daddy!" in mourning for her dead father -- seem a bit overwrought.
Director Michael Scott has staged the play very simply, bordering on the static. The pacing is too slow, and despite Manahan's commanding stage presence, the show often drags.
On the design side, Michael McCaffery's costumes help to create distinct looks for the two sisters. Stuart Marshall's set is spare, with a minimal amount of furniture, but he uses a carpeting of wood chips on the sides of the main playing area to give off an aromatic scent that immediately calls to mind autumn. Director Scott has also designed the lighting, which augments the mood of certain segments of the play, particularly in the second act.