A Red Orchid Theatre sinks in Abbie Spellan’s seaside yarn.

Natalie West, Meg Warner, Kirsten Fitzgerald, John Francis Babbo, and Dado in Abbie Spallen's Strandline, directed by J.R. Sullivan, at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre.
Natalie West, Meg Warner, Kirsten Fitzgerald, John Francis Babbo, and Dado in Abbie Spallen's Strandline, directed by J.R. Sullivan, at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Frustration is the takeaway from A Red Orchid Theatre's troubled production of Irish playwright Abbie Spallen's Strandline. J.R. Sullivan directs a potentially rip-roaring cast that includes Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, and Dado. But Spallen's initially static and ultimately preposterous script is mighty difficult to swallow. The drama is three-quarters talk-a-thon and one-quarter ludicrous plot development, populated by characters that are all but impossible to empathize with.

Set in a small, economically depressed coastal town in Northern Ireland, Strandline opens with a wedding turned tragic. Triona (Meg Warner) is celebrating her nuptials when one or more people somehow become trapped in the roiling ocean (it's never clear how many or who). As music from the reception wafts over the crashing waves, Triona's stepmother Mairin (Fitzgerald) and local kook Eileen (West) stand screaming on the beach, frantically watching Mairin's husband (and perhaps a few other men) try to save the unfortunate soul (or souls) thrashing about in the whitecaps. The sea ultimately claims Mairin's husband, and she leaves the wedding a widow.

The action then jumps forward a month, to Mairin's home on the evening following the memorial service. It's a familiar setup: Stick a bunch of people in a room and let the drama erupt as buried truths are revealed. Sure enough, secrets spill and liquor flows as Triona, Mairin, Eileen, and Clodagh (Dado), a local real estate broker who apparently owns everything and everyone in town, settle in for a long night's journey into day.

The primary problem is that Spallen doesn't give her audience a reason to care about any of the revelations. Sullivan gets vivid performances from his cast, but the characters are all so stridently unpleasant that there's nobody to root for. Clodagh is a low-rent tyrant. Triona is shrill, selfish, and prone to tantrums. Eileen seems to exist only to provide some wacky local color and comic relief. And Mairin is so aloof and self-contained, she sometimes seems like a marble monument rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. Further hampering matters are Irish accents so thick the dialogue is often unintelligible.

There's also a late-in-the-game threat of violence that feels about as likely as the flying donkey (and yes, such an animal factors into the town's dirty underbelly). The leap from bullying to homicide is a large one, and Spallen doesn't provide any sort of bridge to make the crossing feasible. In all, the stakes are so low that it doesn't matter how much violent corruption lurks in the hearts of womenkind. Triona, Mairin, Elieen and Clodagh simply don't incite you to give a whiskey dram.

All that said, Fitzgerald, West, and Dado are at the height of their considerable powers. Fitzgerald has a genuinely luminous presence, underscored by a foundation of ferocity. Her ability to seem both achingly vulnerable and resiliently steely would make for a wholly captivating performance were the script in better shape. The gangly, gawky West is a master of the inappropriate blurt and can elicit belly laughs from her audience with the cock of an eyebrow or a nonplussed stare. As character actors go, she's a bona fide Chicago treasure. Dado brings a whiff of domineering and danger to the stage as the scheming Cladagh.

In addition to the women, Strandline also features a local orphan who is downright Dickensian. Dressed in tatters, stick thin, and forever searching for his absent mother, Sweeney (John Francis Babbo) babbles like a Celtic oracle, his search for the mother who abandoned him as an infant knotted near the center of the town's dark secrets. Babbo is a gifted young actor, but like the rest of the ensemble, he's mired in a script whose shortcomings overshadow his talent.

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Closed: December 7, 2014