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White Woman Street

Sebastian Barry's ambitious stage western explores the issue of personal guilt.

Greg Mullavey, Charlie Hudson III, Gordon Stanley,
Evan Zes, and Stephen Payne in White Woman Street
(© Carol Rosegg)
The Western film has always been a genre that could be used to tell almost any kind of story; it has been used as a means of attacking such societal issues as McCarthyism (High Noon), lynching (The Ox-Bow Incident), and racism (Cheyenne Autumn). In Sebastian Barry's ambitious new play White Woman Street, now being a given superior production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the playwright uses the genre to explore the more personal issue of guilt.

The work is set in 1916 Ohio, where we meet a band of five unlikely outlaws (played by Ron Crawford, Charlie Hudson III, Greg Mullavey, Gordon Stanley, and Evan Zes). The three elderly gents are Irish, Amish, and English, while the younger fellows are Black and Russian, the latter also having a Chinese mother -- and he's from Brooklyn, no less. They are led by an aging cowboy, Trooper O'Hara (Stephen Payne), who is ostensibly bringing them to a town with the unusual name of White Woman Street in order to rob a gold train.

The robbery, however, is merely an excuse for O'Hara to finally face a terrible guilt he's been carrying with him for the past 30 years. The town got its name back in the day when the local whore was the only white woman within 500 miles in any direction, and O'Hara's shame centers upon his own experience when he went to see this woman, harboring in his soul all that she represented to the poor, struggling, lonely men on the frontier.

Under the inventive direction of Charlotte Moore, wooden rigs that look like oil derricks are turned into horses for the gang, creating a rich tension between the rural and the industrial that are appropriate for the setting. In addition, the ambitious sound design by Zachary Williamson gives license to our imaginations to visualize the final climactic attack on the gold train by the ragtag outlaw gang.

Barry's language, however, does not always ring true in the mouths of his characters; sometimes, his monologues feel like the written word rather than the spoken word. When they work, however, there are scenes that suddenly come alive with a white-hot intensity.

If casting is, as is often said, 90 percent of direction, Moore used all 90 when choosing Payne as Trooper O'Hara. He is perfect! In fact, in addition to looking every inch a cowboy, in his opening monologue, his vocal rhythm sounds remarkably similar to John Wayne's.

Ultimately, though, White Woman Street tries too hard -- and too blatantly -- to make this a play about America. The best scenes in the play are the quieter moments of contemplation and memory that are, in their deeply personal ways, utterly universal.