Ordinary life, extraordinary play

Philly Fringe 2021: Irish Heritage Theatre presents Dermot Bolger’s The Holy Ground

3 minute read
Actor Kirsten Quinn, a white woman in an olive-green blouse, is seen in profile looking thoughtfully at an old photo.
Recognizing newfound freedom: Kirsten Quinn in IHT’s ‘The Holy Ground.’ (Photo by Tony Kruth.)

Over the last decade, Irish Heritage Theatre (IHT) has emerged as one of Philadelphia’s most consistently interesting small companies. Although it has mounted great works by Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel, covering topics that stretch from Medieval clan history to the Troubles, its focus often lands on explorations of quotidian life in contemporary Dublin. IHT’s first digital production, The Holy Ground, is no exception.

Dermot Bolger’s 1990 monodrama, presented as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, hinges on a peculiar premise. A recent widow, Monica O’Myrtle (Kirsten Quinn), returns from her husband’s funeral distressed that no one recognized her as the deceased’s wife. A viewer would be right to wonder how someone so seemingly important could go unacknowledged. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that emotional distance long ago settled into the tidy Drumcondra flat where the couple lived separate lives, alone together. (Carlos Ortiz designed the appropriately mundane set.)

A burden lifting

Quinn and director Peggy Mecham spend the better part of an hour infusing Monica’s unremarkable married life with a rising sense of tension, as she recalls how a happy, flirtatious romance with an athletic and spirited young man calcified into resentful, almost silent cohabitation. Bolger shows how an unfulfilled desire for children turned Myles, Monica’s late spouse, into a wellspring of unrelenting cruelty and political radicalization. It comes as little surprise when Monica, freed after 30 years of her husband’s callous, controlling behavior, asks a fundamental question: “Do I exist at all?” Yet it still breaks the heart that brutality drove her to a place of existential uncertainty.

Regret makes itself known across Quinn’s expressive face, as she comes to realize how much of herself she gave away to pacify a man she might not have even loved. But a marvelous element of her performance is the degree to which you can feel that burden lifting as she slowly recognizes her newfound freedom, signified by the ease with which she dumps scrapbooks and notepads into black trash bags, eager to watch the garbage collectors carry them away. (One of Myles’s favorite pastimes, we learn, was writing strident letters to the editor on topics like contraception and the intolerably liberal reforms of Vatican II.)

Gallows humor emerges from beneath even the most lugubrious lines of dialogue—this is an Irish play, after all—and Quinn ideally balances shifts between self pity and surprising levity. A moment where Monica remembers encountering a spirited little girl in a grocery store who seems to contain all the spunk she herself lost is itself worth the ticket price.

A thrilling instability

In a move also familiar throughout Irish drama, a sinister twist emerges. Yet neither Bolger nor Quinn handles it in the manner you might expect. I won’t go into detail—watch for yourself and be surprised—but to me, the way that it still further diverges from what might be expected encapsulates the thrilling instability of modern-day Irish theater, which so often plays on the expected tropes of the genre in subtle, subversive ways. The final image of Quinn riveted to a chintzy armchair, somewhere between keening and cackling with laughter, will stay with me for some time.

The production, filmed at Plays and Players Theater and edited by Tony Kruth, captures what IHT does best: it tells the story of a small life that nonetheless contains big emotions. By going the streaming route, and keeping the price at a friendly $15, The Holy Ground also offers the company a chance to grow its audience beyond those who’ve already come to expect excellence, like myself. I hope many will take this opportunity to discover what makes IHT such a unique and exciting part of Philadelphia’s cultural landscape.

What, When, Where

The Holy Ground. By Dermot Bolger. Directed by Peggy Mecham. Irish Heritage Theatre. $15. Streaming on demand through September 26, 2021. Irishheritagetheatre.org.


The Holy Ground is closed captioned.

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