The Irish Heritage Theatre (IHT) opens its “Women of Ireland” season with Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, a challenging project for a small theater company — not only due to its size but because of the 1989 drama’s poetic, supernatural aspects. Director Peggy Mecham manages her 11 actors well, but could do more — despite the Walnut Street Studio 5’s space and technical limitations — to share Carr’s ethereal vision.
Kirsten Quinn plays Hester, a spurned woman clearly based on Medea, whose former love, Carthage (Arlen Hancock), is marrying young Caroline (Jenna Kuerzi). Carthage wants his daughter with Hester, Josie (Keri Doheny), to live with him and his bride. His new father-in-law Xavier (Ethan Lipkin) wants Hester to disappear, and has already purchased her farm near the title’s bog, but she refuses to go. “Bit of paper, writin’, means nothin’, can as aisy be unsigned,” Hester argues.
Ghouls and blood
This basic plot is wrapped in deliciously spooky layers. When the play begins, Hester is burying an old black swan. A stranger who calls himself the Ghost Fancier (Mark B. Knight) arrives, but realizes he’s too soon. “What ghost are you ghoulin’ around here for?” Hester asks. Ask not — he ghouls for thee. Later, the Cat Woman (Tina Brock), a blind soothsayer, repeats her prophecy that Hester will live no longer than the black swan.
Brock and Knight fully express their characters’ eeriness, and Zack McKenna’s sound design helps with its plucking violin underscoring. Samuel Lee Lewis’s gauzy fabric scenery doesn’t suggest the often-mentioned snow, particularly considering the theater’s black floor. This renders moot Carr’s opening stage direction: “Hester trails the corpse of a black swan after her, leaving a trail of blood in the snow,” as well as many other lurid but beautiful images.
However, IHT’s production successfully reveals the characters with raw sincerity. Quinn makes Hester, accused of being a “Tinker” (Roma-like nomads, feared and reviled), a wild-eyed feral creature, fiercely proud yet desperate. When she tells Xavier, “I can see the darkness in you because it mirrors my own,” she speaks true of both Quinn’s and Lipkin’s performance — their animosity is primal. Mary Pat Walsh excels as Josie’s monstrous grandmother; “I’ll break your spirit,” she tells the innocent child, “and glue you back together the way I want.” Kuerzi’s Caroline is a study in befuddled sorrow, a motherless waif bullied by her father and battered by Hester and Carthage’s struggle for Josie and against their feelings for one another. Susan Giddings, Jimmy Guckin, and John Cannon complete a strong cast coached in Irish Midlands dialect by Michael Toner.
“Strange what these weddings drag up,” says neighbor Monica (Giddings) as the wedding dinner, crammed absurdly onto the tiny stage, disintegrates. The scene’s dark humor includes Cannon’s addled priest, Xavier’s shotgun, the groom’s mother wearing white, and Hester crashing the party, also in white. The tragedies that doomed Carthage and Hester’s relationship are revealed, prompting the inevitable violent reckoning — but in a prosaic manner that fails the play’s style. By the Bog of Cats asserts that tragedy lies not in ignorance of one’s sins, like Oedipus, but in finally admitting them.