(l to r) Pamela J. Gray & Stephanie Roth Haberle in Irish Rep.’s ‘Woman and Scarecrow.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it,” says Duncan in Macbeth about the Thane of Cawdor’s death. Would that the same could be said of the eponymous dying heroine (Stephanie Roth Haberle) in Irish playwright Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow, who requires two hours and 15 minutes to take her leave. Carr’s 2006 bleak comedy (or is it drama?) is getting its New York debut, under Ciarán O’Reilly’s capable direction, in an occasionally bristling performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
The other titular figure is Scarecrow (Pamela J. Gray), Woman’s conscience-like alter ego who, invisible to all but Woman, aids, abets, and argues with her in the palpable form of an attractive blonde, garbed by Whitney Locher in black satin. For her part, the 40ish, mostly bedridden Woman rages against the dying of the light in a simple white shift, her slightly graying long hair flowing down her shoulders.
Also present in the simple, somewhat offbeat room (designed by Charlie Corcoran to work with the suitably supernatural effects of Michael Gottlieb’s lighting) is death, or the Thing in the Wardrobe (Gray). Now and then, when the closet door opens, he stops sucking “his oily black wings” long enough to reveal a wingtip against a background of smoky red lighting.
Near the end, when the Thing makes his grand entrance in a blackbird mask (designed by Rob Flanagan), huge talons, and feathery costume, he seems at first a scarily macabre figure; after a minute or two’s full exposure, though, it begins to feel that trick or treat time is closer than we thought.
Woman and Scarecrow, set in the Irish Midlands, tries, with limited success, to inject mystical folkloric fantasy into a contemporary story of marital infidelity.
No specific disease is cited for Woman’s condition. Scarecrow says she’s dying of “spite.” After pages of rambling chatter about death, happiness, various lovers, and life’s missed opportunities, we learn that she feels thusly because of the philandering of Him (Aidan Redmond), her husband and the father of their eight children.
No attempt is made to define Scarecrow’s provenance—is she unique to Woman or do we all have one? Why does Woman disclaim her as “a vicious parasite”? Does she actually exist or is she a hallucination created by Woman’s meds? Even the Thing’s existence is ambiguous since he leaves his feathers about where someone actually sees them.
Stretched out over two acts, these fantastical elements—effectively heightened by Ryan Rumery’s ominous sounds and music—become as tiresome as Woman’s persistent ranting. No sooner does she quiet down, as when she and Him seem to have found momentary peace, than something presses the wrong button and her peeves are off and running.
This isn’t to deny that there are, indeed, some powerful scenes, chiefly those between Woman and Him (who first appears one-third through the play), and Woman and her piously nasty Auntie Ah (Dale Soules), who comes later. The latter, who raised Woman when her mother died young, is a hardened, cynic who believes Woman could live if she had the will to sit up, have a bowl of soup, and stop being so contrary.
Him, for all his chauvinistic misogyny (his mistress is waiting in the car for news of Woman’s demise), is surprisingly caring in his wife’s final hours, begging for forgiveness. Scarecrow calls him “the High Priest of remorse.” When Woman admits that she, too, had affairs, his shocked reaction is both funny and understandable. Given the ferocity of Woman’s unrelenting attacks, one suspects that not only was living with her never a bowl of shamrocks but that another woman’s arms were his only possible solace.
Carr, whose Irish-inflected dialogue mingles poetic images with earthy prose, introduces intriguing cultural references here and there, like Woman’s fondness for the sentimental music of Demis Roussos, Him’s playing of Chopin, or Woman’s fascinating recollection of Caravaggio’s painting “Death of the Virgin,” with its realistic depiction of Mary’s blueish feet.
Each member of the impressive cast is well-equipped to handle Carr’s language. Haberle has the vocal and physical presence to play Greek tragedy; nevertheless, playing Woman like someone in The Trojan Women blocks any compassion she might otherwise inspire. The energy she expends in dying, in fact, would have killed someone else in ten minutes.
Gray, who doubles as the Thing, makes a sharp-edged counterpart as Scarecrow; Redmond plays the flawed Him with such sensitivity that he becomes the most sympathetic character; and Soules uses her trademark baritone and nuanced readings to etch a powerful portrait of the amusingly mean-spirited aunt.
Woman and Scarecrow is like its leading lady: essentially moribund but making you sit up and take notice when, however fitfully, it springs to life.
Woman and Scarecrow
Irish Repertory Theatre/W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through June 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).