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Theatre reviews: A brutal but charming slow goodbye to a beloved mother

The Scourge; origintheatre.org; showing on Jan 21 & 29


Gleaming intelligence: Michelle Dooley Mahon in The Scourge

Gleaming intelligence: Michelle Dooley Mahon in The Scourge

Gleaming intelligence: Michelle Dooley Mahon in The Scourge

Michelle Dooley Mahon’s one-woman show was first produced by the Wexford Arts Centre in 2018 and toured Ireland during 2019’s First Fortnight, the mental health arts festival. A filmed version is now presented as part of 1st Irish Origin Festival, the New York Irish arts festival, which has migrated online for 2021.

Adapted from her own novel, Scourged, this dramatic personal essay traces Dooley Mahon’s journey with her mother through the trauma of brutal annihilation from Alzheimer’s, to her mother’s funeral in the church where she was married. The slow decline, eventually in a nursing home, took seven years. The 85-minute script is mightily impressive, sometimes brutal, often charming, and with a gleaming intelligence. There is precision in every detail that gives the play a stark truthful feel. Why is a resident’s bed pulled away from the wall? It is a sign they are soon going to die, so the family might sit around.

Veteran director Ben Barnes brings an ingenious hand to a simple staging. Props all emerge from a large wardrobe at the back. A child’s doll is the representation of the mother on stage, and Dooley Mahon looks after it like a baby, the reversal of the mother-daughter dynamic. She puts it to bed and feeds it laxatives. Some of the material is unbearably poignant, as when the daughter observes the skill with which the care-home staff lower her mother into a bath. She then delivers her cleaned and perfumed mother to her father’s side for a Father’s Day visit outdoors.

Dooley Mahon’s personality is funny and likeable. The “scourge” of the title, initially understood as referring to Alzheimer’s, turns into a word for how she sees herself, as a scourge of the health services. Her battle for her mother’s dignity is ceaseless and the toll taken on her own mental health is clearly delineated. “The only caring I could do was for another, my own fell away.” However, the performance is occasionally uncertain, lacking the disciplined steel of the writing.

The basic self-sacrificing element of caring, a task so often falling to women, underlines how important it is to hear stories like this. This frequently unsung role badly needs poetic witness from inside the experience.

My account sounds downbeat, but the tone is much cheerier than that, and Dooley Mahon has plenty of fight. Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire says: “Funerals are pretty compared to deaths.” However, this account of the lingering departure of a beloved mother, whilst not exactly pretty, has an elegance and beauty all its own.

Short Zoom plays are hit and miss

Transatlantic Tales; origintheatre.org; showing on Jan 18 & 26

Theatre company AboutFACE, artists in residence at the Civic in Tallaght last year, replaced their scheduled summer show with an eight-piece compilation of short plays mostly featuring two characters. They paired the cast of their cancelled show with actors based in the US and recorded the work live on Zoom. The plays, all by different authors, are about four minutes long and mostly deal with the pandemic head-on.

They are a mixed bag. Brevity is an underestimated challenge, and some feel very inconsequential indeed.

The best one is Beginnings by Mêlisa Annis, the story of a Fermanagh girl searching out her donor dad who lives in denial in New York. This stuffs plenty of complexity in its short ­runtime. Emily Bohannon’s Kilkenny, KY juggles interesting ambiguities, where two young people discuss a house swap and find life in Kentucky and Kilkenny aren’t that different.

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Other plays feel like too much is being squeezed into the short format. In Zooming for Home by Seamus Scanlon, a complex mother-daughter relationship feels over-compressed and forced. Sometimes the idea is under-excavated, like Rachel White’s Screen, a mother communicating with her overworked doctor son. Directed by Anna Nugent, this project is an inspired idea but the outcome doesn’t live up to its vision.