Keep an eye on the hulking gray wardrobe that looms large over Woman and Scarecrow, Marina Carr’s enthralling exploration of the end of life, now receiving its local premiere from Irish Heritage Theatre (IHT). And don’t trust the elegant lady in the long black dress.
They may look innocuous. And the lady’s words might sound soothing when they first hit your ear. But as the play’s haunted title, and subject, suggest, they contain all the chilling power of death.
From Yeats to McPherson
Carr—a contemporary Irish playwright whose By the Bog of Cats was produced by the same company in 2017—operates in a tradition that stretches from the likes of W.B. Yeats to Conor McPherson, fusing fairy-tale elements with a heavy dose of realism. (This lineage actually traces even farther back in time, to the early sagas that fascinated Yeats and other poets of his ilk.) Woman and Scarecrow is her most speculative work, leaning heavily into a realm of mysticism that could almost seem cartoonish.
But although the play often overflows with humor—mostly of the gallows variety, if you’ll forgive the expression—Carr is too smart and skillful a writer to devolve into full fantasy. She grounds her tale in the tragedy of dying and all that’s contained within, from beauty to horror to sad resignation. Operating on a shoestring budget, director Peggy Mecham’s production for IHT similarly foregrounds the emotional enormity involved in shuffling off this mortal coil. Don’t expect a lot of bells and whistles, but prepare yourself for an outpouring of uncomfortable truths.
Sister, id, or something else?
It remains unclear for much of the play whether the beautiful and mysterious Scarecrow (Mary Lee Bednarek, never better) is merely a hallucination created by the withering brain of the dying Woman (Kirsten Quinn), or if she is something more sinister. They sometimes speak as if they were sisters, recounting happier moments spent eating rich food and enjoying the company of handsome men.
Scarecrow reproaches Woman for her permissiveness toward her philandering husband (David Bardeen, in a welcome departure from the nice-guy roles he normally plays) and her astringent holy-roller of an aunt (a dryly funny Tina Brock). Perhaps she represents Woman’s id, come to mine the depths of her psyche in her final moments. Although Carr avoids general clichés of Irish womanhood in her central character—she’s far from sainted, and there’s not a soda bread in sight—we gather that she has sacrificed much of herself for others, bearing eight children and subjugating her self-interest to their many needs.
Much of the play is spent in a taut tango between Quinn and Bednarek, and, if it weren’t for the impending exigency of death, you sense their dance could go on forever. And in the hands of these talented women, you want it to. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, as the saying goes—but in Quinn’s blazing central performance, Woman alternates between a mordant, irreverent examination of her unfulfilled life and a bone-chilling reckoning with her imminent demise. “I am murderous with my passing,” she says to Scarecrow, and although she may be speaking of how her death will impact others in her life, she is also reflecting on the toll it takes on her own body and spirit.
Bednarek reveals Scarecrow’s ultimate malevolence in fits and starts, until the character reaches a terrifying point of no return. Her final showdown with Quinn is the stuff Irish nightmares are made of.
Speaking of nightmares—remember that wardrobe I mentioned earlier? Needless to say, it holds more than coats. Whenever Scarecrow heads toward it, or slips within it, you can rest assured that something petrifying is on the horizon.
In other words, don’t expect Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But I won’t tell you what lurks in the shadows of this stunning drama. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
What, When, Where
Woman and Scarecrow. By Marina Carr. Directed by Peggy Mecham. Irish Heritage Theatre. Through November 9, 2019, at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Irishheritagetheatre.org.
Plays & Players Theater has a ramp entrance available for patrons who need it, but all restrooms are located on the venue’s basement level, which is accessible only by stairs.