Natalie West, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Meg Warner, John Francis Babbo, and Dado
Natalie West, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Meg Warner, John Francis Babbo, and Dado Credit: Michael Brosilow

What would we do without our Irish playwrights? Conor McPherson alone has filled out the season for more than one local theater this year. And the year before that. And probably next year too. You can see his The Night Alive—about which all the critics and my wife are raving—for just a little while longer at Steppenwolf Theatre. AstonRep, meanwhile, has brought back one by Martin McDonagh, who filled the McPherson function with considerably greater nastiness about a decade back. They’re presenting The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh’s bloody 2001 farce on the subjects of love, cats, and patriotic psychopathy.

We keep returning to Irish playwrights for lots of reasons—but mainly, I think, for their superior ability to remain on friendly terms with paradox. They know how to deploy that famous Irish ache: the awful comic ambivalence that comes of living, as Yeats wrote, where motley is worn.

Abbie Spallen has a touch of the same in her. She at least seems to understand motley fairly well. An actress turned writer who grew up on the southern edge of Northern Ireland—where it abuts the Irish Republic—and has set her work there, she once offered two words of advice to her artistic countrymen: “Get out.” Doing so herself has served her well. Spallen had a success in New York seven years ago with a play called Pumpgirl (definitely not to be confused with Pumpgirls and Dinettes), which records grim doings among the female gas station attendant of the title, the street-racing object of her affections, and his pissed-off wife.

A Red Orchid Theatre gave Pumpgirl its Chicago premiere in 2009. Now the company is doing the same for another Spallen black comedy, Strandline.

Strandline brings us back to Spallen’s borderlands, where the first thing that happens is a drowning. A clutch of wedding guests watch from shore, unable to intervene as the father of the bride, a well-known local man named Tom, slowly—very slowly—disappears beneath the waves. Besides his lucklessly married daughter, Triona, Tom leaves behind his latest wife, Mairin, who’s something of an outsider among the tight-knit townsfolk, though she’s as much a native as anybody. The trouble with Mairin is airs. She puts them on. She had Tom build her a big house in the manner of Le Corbusier. Motifs from Smetana run through her head. She pops in to Dublin on a regular basis, knows her Celtic arcana, and does fiber art on ecological themes. Uneasy over the fact that Tom’s body was never recovered, leaving her with nothing to bury, she’s preparing a catafalque for him. (Look it up.)

Naturally, everybody hates her. And they’re surprisingly candid when it comes to making their feelings known. Triona treats her stepmom like shit, as behooves a proper stepdaughter. But Mairin also absorbs considerable scorn from Clodagh and Eileen, women more her own age, who make much of how they were never invited up to Mairin’s modernist aerie until her husband kicked.

Eileen looks for the most part like a straight-out lush. But, as played by Dado, Clodagh evokes something harsher and more dangerous. Smooth, smart, devious, mean, and awfully angry, she’s the classic small-time operator. Kirsten Fitzgerald’s Mairin is clearly queasy about having the two of them around, yet she doesn’t want to be alone in that big house, so she calls them back even when they’re ready to leave. She’d have done better to go with her instinct. Drinks come out, claws are unsheathed, and dirty secrets are dredged up from the deep.

And the Irish ache throbs mightily. Strandline never takes off as it should, however. For all that the play trembles with intimations of power, for all its juicy tidbits and willingness to run headlong into dark corners, the one response it provokes more than any other is simple narrative confusion. Too much of the time, I was unsure exactly why matters were falling out as they were. I understood the general progress of events but not their individual triggers. What, for instance, dictated the dynamics of certain aspects of Mairin’s interaction with Clodagh? I knew—and I also didn’t know, not really, though I bet an audience member at, say, Galway’s Druid Theatre would. Spallen’s drama is perhaps too colloquial for its own good. Where writers like McPherson and McDonagh are canny enough to leave out the untranslatable details, Spallen leaves them there for foreigners to trip over. It’s an Irish thing. We don’t understand.

Nor does J.R. Sullivan’s staging do the job of enlightening us. I’m a great fan of Kirsten Fitzgerald’s acting—especially her marvelous recent turn in Bruce Norris’s The Qualms—but she comes off tenuously as Mairin, looking merely quizzical when the big crisis hits. On the other hand, there’s Natalie West, infusing Eileen with truly creepy surprises, and child actor John Francis Babbo giving everybody hell as a strange boy on a quest to find his lost mother. If anything aches in A Red Orchid’s Strandline, it’s his performance.