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When Daughter Becomes Mother in The Scourge

Michelle Dooley Mahon's solo play at Irish Rep recounts her experiences caring for her mother during her battle with Alzheimer's.

Michelle Dooley Mahon in her solo play The Scourge, directed by Ben Barnes, at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Michelle Dooley Mahon's The Scourge, directed by Ben Barnes and running in the intimate downstairs space at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is an autobiographical solo play about Mahon's years acting as caretaker to her mother during her slow decline from Alzheimer's. She wrote a memoir about the experience as well — a book similarly titled Scourged. And after seeing the theatrical version of her story, you get the sense that narrative prose is her preferred writing style. The Scourge is beautifully written and deeply personal, but in its current form, it's better suited to the page than the stage.

From her opening anecdote about a trip to the dentist — which triggers childhood memories of her mother taking her to the dentist where she engaged in her obstinate and "scourge"-like behavior — Mahon goes into meticulous detail about every one of her recollections. The 85-minute piece is filled with rich imagery and luscious turns of Irish phrase, chronicling everything from the painful minutiae of a bath to the anguished specifics of the physical and emotional toll this unplanned role of nurturer had on Mahon.

In each vignette, demarcated by songs in a carefully curated soundtrack (sound design by Jamie Beamish), she repeatedly calls attention to the role reversal that's taken place between mother and child: The woman who once took her to the dentist is now being taken there; the woman who once gave her baths is now helplessly given them.

They're all elucidating details that dig into the depths of Mahon's life-changing (and broadly relatable) experience. But they also bog the piece down in dense language that has a hard time traveling beyond the lip of the stage. It maintains the same impenetrable literary sound throughout, Mahon's consistently hushed whisper adding little in the way of dynamics. She's telling the story of the most profound journey of her life. And yet, frustratingly, you don't feel taken on a journey (though I can't help but wonder whether it would feel more piercing if she were whispering the text in your ear like an audiobook).

In the way of staging, Barnes (with the help of set designer Mark Redmond) adds only a few elements: namely, the big wardrobe at the back of the stage that Mahon wanders in and out of between scenes, and an ironing board on which sits a doll that stands in for Mahon's mother — a device that is alternatingly effective and awkward.

These set pieces project the aura of a "play," but don't actually create a world that a theatrical piece needs to come alive. That world is entirely in Mahon's mind, heart, and body, and in the moments we have full access to those things, The Scourge is incredibly moving. If only that soul could be unrelentingly unleashed on an audience.

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