Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl conjures the same feelings as a page-turning novel — each chapter brings you one creaking step closer to a dreaded but inevitable conclusion. You could say quiet desperation is the thing linking the three characters we follow via the play's round robin of monologues, but that feels like too melodramatic a term for Spallen's humbly poetic writing about the provincial lives led along the southern border of Northern Ireland.
Nicola Murphy revives the play with a no-frills production in the small downstairs space at the Irish Repertory Theatre — Pumpgirl's first major New York production since its off-Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. And with three outstanding performances supporting its rich, expressive language, it's easy to understand why this was a title that emerged from the heap.
Staring out at the audience from their designated sections of the stage are an amateur race car driver "No Helmet" Hammy (Hamish Allan-Headley), his wife Sinead (Clare O'Malley), and the tomboy "Pumpgirl" (Labhaoise Magee), who dreams of being the girl that comes between them (lighting designer Michael O'Connor is responsible for bringing our characters in and out of the story). They all travel in a tiny orbit that encloses the small space between a house, a market, a school, and the tiny petrol station where Pumpgirl works. As Sinead says in one of her speeches, "In this town, you're either a slut or a snob, no in-betweens." And as such, everyone (forgive the racing pun) stays in their lane, no matter how strangling it may be.
Sinead's territory spans primarily from her stove, where she makes tea for her two children, to her bed, where she lies awake bitterly awaiting the sound of her husband's car pulling into the driveway (set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen gives her an upright bed from which to deliver her late-night monologues). O'Malley grabs the role with a strong, gravelly voice and wide eyes that, through their utter dissatisfaction, reveal a glimmer of pride in the knowledge that she's anything but blind to her circumstances. Her world expands, at least momentarily, when a charming man quoting Francis Bacon stirs some of her most submerged emotions, though he eventually sends her into a dangerous state of shock, which her long-anesthetized system initially doesn't even seem capable of enduring.
That threatening dormancy pervades all three panels of the trifold story. Hammy's head pounds around his race car like he has something to prove while gliding to victory in his small-potatoes competition (Allan-Headley is charming and grotesque all at once); and Pumpgirl, in her camouflaging baseball cap and hoodie (Molly Seidel designs the costumes), casually chats to us about her friendly and occasionally sexual relationship with Hammy — sputtering off some none-too-pleasant things about the wife she's never met as well (a tragically fragile performance by Magee that perfectly suits the intimate space).
Hammy's destructive masculinity — something his equally impetuous pals enjoy goading — is bound to be a toxic mix with Pumpgirl's innocent and unsophisticated ideas of romance. But we're forced to watch this looming collision in slow motion, and it's an excruciating undertaking. Meanwhile, hovering in the background of this community quietly riddled with violence, betrayal, and loneliness are the remnants of the far more public acts of violence of the Troubles. Pumpgirl talks about memories of "bombscare days" at school, saying things like, "I used to sit and think about old nuns in beds lying there waiting for a bomb to go off." Little does she know there are wives all around town lying in their beds awaiting the exact same fate.