Eclipsed (Mephisto Theatre Company)
By Charlie Mcbride
It has been 21 years since its premiere but Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed has lost none of its power, as the fine new production from Mephisto Theatre Company, currently running at the Town Hall, amply demonstrates. It is also fitting that the play should be getting a major new production in the same year that the Magdalenes have finally got official State recognition via the McAleese Report and the Government decision to grant them compensation. In ways the play’s journey has paralleled that of the Magdalenes; Eclipsed was one of the very first works to alert the world to their story and its periodic revivals in the intervening years, both here and abroad, helped keep that story in the public eye.
Mephisto’s production is confidently directed by Niall Cleary and in Triona Lillis’s design of the laundry space it is telling that the only splash of bold colour is from the episcopal purple of the recently cleaned bishop’s robes, hung over a mannequin and serving as a mute yet vivid symbol of the Church’s male power structure and its condemnation of the Magdalenes. The first act illustrates the drudgery of the penitents’ daily routine but also highlights their camaraderie. There is plenty of humour and high spirits, such as when they dress up a mannequin as Elvis for a mock wedding with the star-struck Mandy (Siobhan Donnellan). The second act of the play is much darker as it moves toward a tragic climax and witnesses desperate attempts to escape, and equally desperate lashing out against the nuns who are their de-facto captors. Yet the play also points out how the nuns are also captives in their own way. If Mother Victoria (a nuanced performance from Caroline Donnellan) is the stern overseer of the laundry, she does what she does out of unquestioning loyalty to Church authority rather than innate sadism, she practises the blind obedience she frequently teaches. Notably, it is she who speaks the line “we are eclipsed” which gives the play its title. The younger Sister Virginia (Catherine Denning) speaks up for the Magdalenes and tries to help them but as the penitent Bridget bitterly points out to her her efforts are little more than tokenism and make no real difference to the women’s lot. Bridget (wonderfully played by Emma O’Grady) reminds us of Ken Kesey’s McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, she is spirited, indomitable and not afraid to take on the nuns. Yet we also see that she is not merely an ‘angry young woman’ and that much of her motivation comes from the burning love she feels for her lost baby and her desire to be re-united with her child.
Director Cleary gets fine performances from the entire Mephisto cast; aside from those already mentioned there is Maggie O’Sullivan, reliable as ever in the role of Nellie-Nora, Zita Monahan who, on the night I saw the show, doubled-up as Rosa (the grown-up child of Bridget who revisits the laundry looking for her past), and the asthmatic Magdalene Cathy, and Edel McGrath as the youngest inmate, Juliet.
Eclipsed continues at the Town Hall until Saturday August 31, at 8pm.