A dark comedy of Ireland at Gloucester Stage

28Jul15

‘The New Electric Ballroom’ runs through August 15

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Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, currently at Gloucester Stage is not a conventional play and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, the rewards of this dark comedy are many.

The setting is a tiny island village off the coast of Ireland, in a cottage where three sisters have isolated themselves for the last four decades. Their self-imposed confinement is the aftereffect of the two older sisters’ traumatic experience 40 years ago, when their romantic hopes and aspirations were dashed on the same night by a visiting rock god after a concert at the local dance hall, the New Electric Ballroom.

Irish Catholic imagery and cultural references abound as the sisters lead lives of self-denial and sacrifice in while waiting for…what? Perhaps the arrival of a savior and one last shot at salvation?

ballroom2Older sisters Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) and Clara (Marya Lowry) stay at home and relive and even reenact in ritual fashion – complete with repeated incantations – that fateful night decades ago when each had her adolescent romantic dreams of a new life as the consort of a teen idol crushed.

The youngest of the three sisters, Ada, (Adrianne Krstansky) is allowed to leave the cottage to work at the local fish plant. But even she has had to hear the story of her older sisters’ night of forsaken passion “a thousand times,” throughout her life. “I’m only a baby when you tell me that story,” she wails.

The only regular visitor to the cottage is Patsy the fishmonger (Derry Woodhouse), who delivers buckets of fish. He also delivers the news and gossip from the village. At first, the women treat him with impatience and irritation even though Patsy tells them that his visits “soothe me” and are “the only thing certain” in his otherwise drab life. He longs for “a kind word.”

On the kitchen table of the cottage sits a round sponge cake, which Clara claims to have made.
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“Will we ever eat this sponge cake,” she laments repeatedly. But these sisters deny themselves the cake and even repeatedly reject the idea of a cup of tea, as if they are not worthy of such indulgences – at least, not yet.

Don’t get the idea that things are entirely cheerless. There’s ample Irish wit to counter the gloom and doom.

Jenna McFarland Lord’s spare set reflects a claustrophobic sense of confinement and isolation surrounded by a sea of troubles, self-imposed or not.

On one level, The New Electric Ballroom is about the safety we find in our comfort zones and rituals, and the risks and potential rewards of breaking away from them. As an atypical of theater experience, it also pushes the audience out its comfort zone. The more I thought about The New Electric Ballroom, the more I appreciated it.

Kudos to director Robert Walsh for taking on a risky play and assembling a cast more than capable of making it work.

The New Electric Ballroom is a thought-provoking play that you will find yourself talking about on the ride home and even days later. If that’s the kind of theater you enjoy, this may be just your cup of tea.

The New Electric Ballroom runs through August 15 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or phone 978-281-4433.

[The New Electric Ballroom, by Enda Walsh. Directed by Robert Walsh. Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume Design, Miranda Giurleo. Lighting Design, Russ Swift. Sound Design, Arshan Gailus. Dialect Coach, Erika Bailey. Stage Manager, Maureen Lane.]

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