The Irish playwright Sebastian Barry has a bounteous gift for turning phrases and spinning tales, and he’s very generous with it in “Our Lady of Sligo,” which is making its U.S. premiere at the Irish Repertory Theater. He’s bestowed it on virtually all the characters in this bleak portrait of benighted Irish lives, which stars the inestimable Sinead Cusack, who is re-creating her award-winning performance in this re-creation of a production originally seen at London’s Royal National Theater.
But as we pass the two-hour mark, and the lyrical language and abundant imagery begins to pile up willy-nilly — simile construction is right up there with the three R’s in Irish schooling, apparently — the play itself begins to disappear into the verbiage. Eventually even Cusack’s fiercely felt, captivating performance fails as a bulwark against the stultifying tide of excess language. By the time the last metaphor has been strewn, the dramatic potency of “Our Lady of Sligo” has all but ebbed away.
That’s a real pity, because the first hour or so of the play gives us a defiantly unsentimental but deeply sympathetic view of a promising life that has gone messily astray. The play, another in Barry’s cycle about his Irish family, is a sort of distaff counterpart to “The Steward of Christendom,” which served as a powerful vehicle for the late, great Irish actor Donal McCann.
As in that play, the central character in “Sligo” is discovered at the ragged end of life, confined to a bed where memories of misfortunes earned and unearned provide almost her only companionship. The patient in this case is Mai O’Hara (Cusack), who at 53 is dying from liver cancer in a Dublin hospital. She is tended by a devout nurse (Andrea Irvine) and visited by ghosts both living and dead.
She prefers the dead, actually, and in her morphine-induced delirium is occasionally inclined to deny any knowledge of her long marriage to middle-class engineer Jack (Jarlath Conroy) and her maternity of actress daughter Joanie (Melinda Page Hamilton), even when they stand before her, consoling or accusing.
Guilt and bile rage alongside the morphine in Mai’s veins. The guilt stems from a shameful life of alcoholism and its attendant disgraces, which include exposing a young Joanie to a pathetic episode of adultery, and possible responsibility for the death of her baby boy Colin. The bile is directed primarily at her husband Jack, who drank away her genteel father’s house and started Mai on her own course of determined and self-destructive inebriation. Happy once upon a time, when Jack was posted to Africa on an engineering job, they’ve been “tearing into each other for decades,” each seeing in the other both the symbol and cause of life’s broken promises.
The almost gleefully bitter Mai is not at first an easy character to warm to, despite the specter of death at the foot of the bed, and admirably, Cusack never stoops to softening her rough edges. Instead, Cusack makes Mai’s truculence and antagonism appealing by emphasizing her mordant humor and the disappointments from which her anger springs. It’s a fully imagined and movingly realized performance; Cusack feels Mai’s anguish down to her fingertips, and the audience receives it from her in moments that blaze with fury and humor and pathos.
Mai’s memories of a happy childhood at the feet of her prosperous and doting father, whose ghost is her dearest companion, show us the promising seeds from which such misery has inexplicably grown, and the contrast is indeed affecting. For all Mai’s mistakes and failings, the primal roots of her despair lie in a deep sensitivity to the indifference of God, or a godless universe, to humanity’s suffering.
It’s God and fate Mai is most angry at, really, and who cannot sympathize? In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, we see Mai fleeing her messy marriage on a stormy night and throwing herself on the mercy of her godmother, begging for “rescue”; calmer the next morning, she realizes that an escape from life’s trials is not so easily found, and she sadly returns home.
Unfortunately, the sympathy earned by Cusack’s vibrant, darkly funny performance as Mai is sorely tested by the play. Barry seems to become inebriated himself on the heady powers of his own poetry, and as the second act drags on, with Jack and Joanie joining Mai in lamenting at considerable length the woes of her life, the play sputters and stalls.
Eventually it begins to veer toward the maudlin, as the dialogue starts running on an endless loop of misery recollected in florid bursts of lyricism. Conroy and Hamilton are not as adept as Cusack at humanizing Barry’s ornate phrasing, and during their long monologues you may find yourself withdrawing from the play into a reverie on Barry’s taste for image-spinning: I began to count up the metaphors and similes and soon lost track.
Nor can director Max Stafford-Clark entirely finesse the static and stagy nature of the play. The set by Julian McGowan is strictly naturalistic, which requires that all Mai’s visitors, those of the flesh and of the spirit, enter via the same humble doorway. A more stylized, hallucinatory production might disguise the limitations this puts on the play’s theatricality. Unlimited, however, is the appeal of Cusack’s performance, which remains spirited and affecting even when the play sags around it.