Belfast Girls deserves attention for the aspiration of founder and director Rich Kenzie in this debut production at Carnegie Stage through Sunday, Oct. 29 only.
Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Chicago’s Artemisia Theater further developed the play and produced the world premiered in 2015.
During snippets of their three-month shipboard journey, they bond, full of aching memories, dark secrets, abject fear and a little hopeful anticipation. In the cramped confines of their ship bunk room, the quintet settle in, say farewell to Ireland, and prepare for to move on. Refugees all, each has already experienced a lifetime of strife that belies their ages.
A terrific ensemble of five young women carries this charming, funny, dark, and thoughtful two-act play by Jaki McCarrick, one of Ireland’s literary stars. Historically, the five represent some 4,000 young women who were shipped to Australia to provide wives to the predominantly male population there. The formal program was designed to reduce the workhouse populations and provide escape from the devastation of Ireland’s four-year potato famine (1845-49). The solution of shipping young women out conjures Ebenezer Scrooge’s suggestion that those who would avoid the workhouse might simply die to decrease the surplus population.
But these women have already survived, some of that resilience played out on the streets, some in varied realms of society. While hope is on the horizon (they are alive, after all), it is an ageless tale of women with few options. They may wind up again enslaved in arranged marriages or worse. We learn one was even sold by her own father. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”
Co-Directors Kenzie and Samantha A. Camp use Peter Bergman’s compact set and the naturally intimate Carnegie Stage theater to great advantage. Excellent sightlines and efficient direction invites the audience into the tiny world that foreshadows the wilds of Australia. Paige Borack’s apt lighting and authentic costumes via Spotlight Costumes further enhance this fine production.
The young women on shipboard for three months–ample time to consider the past and wonder about their futures. Each actress brings a vibrant performance–and within a few feet of the audience. It’s a powerful proximity and one of the reasons that productions at Carnegie Stage are vital in our regional mix.
Flawless accents are supported by Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s wonderful Irish dialect coaching as the cast authentically navigates McCarrick’s dialogue. Tonya Lynn’s vibrant fight choreography takes the actresses all over the stage and practically at the audience’s feet at times.
The cast is top-notch with each actress drawing solid characterizations of substance and nuance. Together, the ensemble could likely transport itself into other scripts or projects; they are excellent artists who mine the comic, the tragic, the musical, and the profound.
As the Jamaican-born Judith, Sara Williams draws a strong survivor who may be the most street-wise of the group. She’s wise in her initial discretion but soon displays affection and empathy as relationships are defined. Seen previously in Pittsburgh, this Chicago actress will hopefully be back here soon.
Jenny Malarkey is Ellen, the quiet observer who pokes fun at the others is no less passionate. She is yet another strong spoke in the wheel as stories reveal more than we ever imagined.
Sarah, whose brother has already written to her from the destination continent, is portrayed by Cassidy Adkins. She is focussed on remembering what she’s left and brought along in a hat box of family things. The only traveler who has someone waiting for her, Sarah’s hopefulness is guarded, but we learn once more that her past and future may hold loss and fear. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”
Val Williams as Hannah brings a strong depiction to the mix–consistently stirring the pot with questions and a dose of reality. She nips at a flash, breaks into song, and whips up some contrast in the pensive under-desk digs.
Molly has some secrets, too, and Elizabeth Glyptis gives a moving performance that spans from innocent hope to painful reality. Molly reminds Sarah that times will someday change for women as women around the world are gathering to gain more equality in society and work. Her Molly’s journey is no less necessary than those of her comrades, but how she embarked has some surprising elements. We learn why Molly is different. Molly and Judith may burrow into some books Molly has brought along but their peace is broken by bits of reality before they land.
The play digs into a broad spectrum of classist prejudices, some related to the capitalistic disregard for those who suffered during the Famine. No one is safe, despite the refuge they all seek, so expect to be enlightened and surprised as each character backstory is mined.
On deck the women have some moments of sun and air. Remarkably they all finally arrive at the Australian shore when we are introduced to them once more–name by name. It’s heartening to know this sampling of girls from Belfast have made it thus far. Given what we know of them, we think they’ll make it. And we are thankful for knowing their story.
Belfast Girls is a slice of history that resonates with the ongoing challenges for young women seeking a safe life and viable livelihood. This is a valuable experience for adults and students of all ages. Consider getting out to Carnegie before Belfast Girls closes for a bite before the show (lots of dining choices within blocks of the theater), ample parking, and ticket options. Thursday, Oct. 26 is pay-what-you-will night and tickets are otherwise only $28, fair indeed for supporting a new company in the region and the fine work in Belfast Girls.
Performances are at 8pm through Sunday with a 2 pm matinee on Sat., October 28. Visit the ticket link to order now. Students and artists may request a discount via email.