C<B>laiming her place in the company of the Irish theater's storytellers, Abbie Spallen shows she can tell a tale with the best of them. Her "Pumpgirl" doesn't take the narrative genre anywhere it hasn't been before, but it demonstrates her gift for vibrant demotic speech and her feel for architectural tension, while casting a female eye over a hitherto male-dominated form.</B>
Claiming her place in the company of the Irish theater’s storytellers, Abbie Spallen shows she can tell a tale with the best of them. Her “Pumpgirl” doesn’t take the narrative genre anywhere it hasn’t been before, but it demonstrates her gift for vibrant demotic speech and her feel for architectural tension, while casting a female eye over a hitherto male-dominated form.
“Pumpgirl” uses interlinking monologues to tell the same story from different perspectives. Spallen’s setting is a Northern Irish backwater where alcohol and adultery are the main forms of entertainment.
An air of mediocrity hangs over the characters: the “pumpgirl” (Orla Fitzgerald), whose gas station is visited only by those who don’t realize it’s cheaper to get fuel a couple of miles down the road in the Republic of Ireland; Hammy (James Doran), who owes his fame as an amateur stock-car racer to his refusal to wear a helmet; and his wife, Sinead (Maggie Hayes), whose greatest pleasure is soaking up the atmosphere of the local market at closing time.
As played by Fitzgerald (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), Pumpgirl is a tomboy loner with short-cut hair, camouflage trousers and shapeless T-shirt, a curious mixture of independence and selfless naivety.
On the one hand, she distinguishes herself from the sexually charged young women who criticize her androgynous appearance. On the other, she is utterly captivated by boorish Hammy, with his love of souped-up cars and authentic country music. Their affair is exploitative and loveless, yet it burns so brightly in Pumpgirl’s firmament that she’s incapable of recognizing its abusive nature.
Although the loutish behavior of Hammy and his male friends forms a central part of the story, Spallen shifts the attention to the women’s experience, in particular Sinead’s. The stoic Hayes plays the neglected wife with a sense of repressed intelligence. She is seduced by Shawshank, the offstage villain of the piece; all she has to do is hear him trot out a line of poetry learned from a dictionary of quotations and she has a brief vision of a life less ordinary.
Performed as if on the gas station forecourt of Bob Bailey’s tar-black set, the play tells a vivid story of people being defeated by their own low aspirations. Mike Bradwell’s engaging production, which transfers in September to the Bush Theater and is expected to tour to San Francisco at the end of the year, is performed with great humanity.
It’s not a major play. But it has a linguistic energy and command of narrative craft that suggests this won’t be the last we hear of Spallen.