Fourteen years after her first play had its American premiere in a tiny Off Off Broadway studio theater, playwright Geraldine Aron has provided the Irish Repertory Theater with a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale to launch the group’s eight season, its first in a lovely new 99-seat theater in Chelsea.
Aron’s playbill biography says she was born in Ireland and spent considerable time living in Africa, developing a career in advertising and returning to the U.K. in 1989. “Same Old Moon” begins with playwright Brenda Barnes (Madeleine Potter) returning to the London flat shared by her widowed mother, Bridie (Terry Donnelly), and Aunt Peace (Aideen O’Kelly), a pair of fussbudgets who just wish Brenda would write something nice about her family — a request that’s pretty much ignored, of course, in the 18 scenes that follow.
In many respects, “Same Old Moon” adheres all too faithfully to the conventions of the form: The opening moments find Brenda alone in the apartment holding, first, a doll and then a composition book that obviously takes her back to her childhood. The scene soon shifts in time back to that childhood, in which she is ever a disappointment to a cruel and uninvolved father (Risteard Cooper) and all-too-complacent mother.
Under the tutelage of a free-spirited cafe owner (Paddy Croft), Brenda eventually discovers her writer’s voice and marries a Rhodesian Jew (John Keating) who literally takes her away from her pain when they move to Africa. Yet Brenda keeps returning, partly in the hope that she can win the love of a father whose heartlessness extends even beyond his death.
“Is it because I wasn’t a boy?” she asks him, as he lies on his deathbed in a hospital. “If I didn’t like you,” he replies, “it was because you were too much like myself,” a response that inexplicably gives her some hope despite the fact that it’s so blatantly preposterous; Brenda is nothing at all like this abusive, alcoholic, self-destructive bigot.
Aron’s point may be that we all feel compelled to reconcile with our parents at whatever emotional cost to ourselves. But if that’s the case, Charlotte Moore’s staging fails to give that notion a necessary edge. Most of “Same Old Moon” is woozy rather than sharp, and hard as Potter tries, her Brenda tends to go fuzzy in the soft focus. Though playwright Aron is dredging up powerful and painful memories here, “Same Old Moon” lacks the ferocity of John Patrick Shanley’s “A Beggar in the House of Plenty” or Stephen Poliakoff’s “Hitting Town” — works with similar themes.
Nevertheless, Potter and her colleagues offer some endearing portraits, and Aron has a gift for childhood vignettes that strike a memorable balance between poignance and comedy. In one scene, young Brenda is taught the facts of life by a no-nonsense nun, who promptly invites the girl to eat the biscuit and doughnut that have been her visual aids. In another, she’s flirted with by an itinerant tenor (Ciaran O’Reilly) who bills himself unabashedly as the Voice of Enrico Caruso.
The 19 scenes unfold on Bryan Johnson’s simple, suggestive set. The company is obviously proud of the revolve its new stage features and believes that if you’ve got one, use it as often as possible. Gregory Cohen’s lighting helps define the various places, and David Toser’s costumes do a similar job establishing the changing times (though he might have been more generous with Brenda, who seems to be wearing the same out fit throughout).
The actors, several of whom double and triple roles, are wholly appealing. Notable are Keating’s portrayal of an entirely too fastidious cousin of Brenda’s , and Aedin Moloney, who vamps it up as a trampy neighbor with a taste for seminarians. Though the play they inhabit is, in the end, not wholly satisfying , they’re all good company.