The cut-away of an Irish cottage that serves as a set for PICT’s production of John B. Keane’s Sive (pronounced sigh-ve), looks a quaint place, if sparse and threadbare, but it will house a destructive tableau of hungry, grasping poverty. What befalls because of it prompts Nanna Glavin’s (Sharon Brady) bitter comment, “Women must pay for all happiness.” And it certainly is the women who must suffer the most for even the few scraps of comfort left to them.
The play takes place in County Kerry, a southern region of Ireland, in the 1950’s at the home of Mike Glavin (Michael Fuller). He lives there with his wife, Mena (Karen Baum), his mother, Nanna, and his young niece, Sive (Cassidy Adkins). Mike and Mena scrape together a meager living while Sive goes to school at the local convent, but they are presented with a chance to escape their poverty when the local matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (James Fitzgerald) sneaks in to tell Mena that an elderly farmer with money to burn wants to marry Sive, and will even pay to have her instead of demanding the usual dowry from the family.
James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen and Karen Baum as Mena
To Mena’s initial credit, she scoffs at the match, but the lure of money proves too much of an enticement. Fitzgerald as Thomasheen, under Alan Stanford’s most commanding direction, plies and plies at Mena, at first keeping his distance, letting the idea sink in, then moving in ever closer as she succumbs to his persuasion. He even leans over to whisper in her ear, the image of a serpent charming her with temptation. When she is finally convinced, he closes the distance to clasp her hand, and it seems the devil’s bargain is struck. Thomasheen continues to hover about the cottage like a dirty vulture, overseeing his work in order to get his cut of the bargain.
But it is not easy work convincing the rest of the family. Mike vehemently rejects the match when Mena first brings it up, leaping from the table and pacing the small space between the door and the table like a caged animal. He comes around doubtfully, just as hungry for money (an image made literal as he dumps his day’s profit on his dinner plate) as his wife, although his qualms never go away. Sive is left to flounder with the increasing pressure from her family. She tries to protest the marriage quietly, ignoring Thomasheen and her intended fiancée, Sean Dota (Charles David Richards) when they come to call and telling Mena she cannot go through with it, but she can do little to truly defend herself.
Michael Fuller as Mike Glavin and James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen
In fact, though the play is named for her, it is not Sive’s play. She stands out from the other characters in her clean, fresh appearance against their dirty and ragged clothing, but she seems a creature apart. The satchel of books she carries instead of water or farm equipment reinforces this. She is not often on the stage, but her name is thrown about constantly. Really, it is Mena and Thomasheen’s play. They dominate the stage as they plot to marry off Sive and lift themselves out of abject poverty. It is also a play about all the events that transpired before Sive was born, including her mother giving in to youthful passion and having Sive out of wedlock. Sive’s marriage is as much a punishment for what her mother did as it is a means to an end, even though the girl has not made any error herself.
It would be easy to hate Mena if Baum had not played her with so much humanity. She criticizes and snaps at anyone and everyone in the house at a moment’s notice, but she is also a woman frustrated with living side by side her critical mother-in-law who wastes no chance to remind Mena how unwelcome she has been since Mike brought her home. She has lived a life of constant labor with nothing to show for it and could not afford to wait for a better husband when she was young. In spite of that, there is still some warmth and even poetry buried deep down inside of her. She only wants the means to live, instead of constantly surviving.
Karen Baum as Mena and Sharon Brady as Nanna Glavin
Thomasheen is harder to forgive. The roguishness that Fitzgerald brings to the role can be alluring, and he is not without his own misfortune, but his single-mindedness to sell Sive into a marriage she does not want just to save himself is appalling. He bends and bows to seem subservient, but he is the one with all the strings in hand and he will pull them to whatever end to keep control. Thomasheen is a man who makes his living off of the suffering of women, and yet he scorns the roving tinkers Pats Babcock and Cathalawn (Martin Giles and J. Alex Noble, respectively) as beggars.
Alan Stanford makes a timely choice in performing Sive, as we stare down a new healthcare plan that threatens millions struggling with poverty in the U.S. and a president whose policies at large target women and minorities who already have to fight daily for their very existence. It has long been government policy that “Women must pay for all happiness,” in some way or another. Sive may take place in 1950’s Ireland, but it could easily be set in present day America, and it is a frightening to think what may happen to our own country if we ignore the little people hurting right now.
Sive runs through May 20th at the Union Project on North Negley Avenue in Highland Park and ticket information can be found here.