It's one of the hangovers from the confession culture of the 1990s: the far-too-optimistic belief that sharing our most intimate and challenging stories is always therapeutic and beneficial.
The talking cure remains the fundamental bedrock of psychotherapy, and people finding the courage to bring their stories to the public have helped our culture come to grips with personal and social maladies. But it is the dark side of family narrative on display in The New Electric Ballroom, Enda Walsh's gripping drama at Manbites Dog Theater.
The territory will likely be familiar enough for regular theatergoers. Four eccentrics in a small Irish fishing village—three sisters and the fishmonger who makes regular pilgrimages to the house that two of them never leave—are as haunted by their pasts as the characters in the works of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. (Though Walsh is often mentioned with both as the strongest of a generation of Irish playwrights, this production marks the regional premiere of his work.) But where McPherson would take a turn for the supernatural and McDonagh might resort to fisticuffs, Walsh dives into the surreal and psychological instead.
The walls of the minimal wire-and-wooden-frame set, designed by Derrick Ivey, appropriately suggest a cage more than a living room and kitchen. Within them, two sisters in their 60s, Breda (Marcia Edmundson) and Clara (Lenore Field), keep retelling the story of a fateful night for them both—the evening that a rockabilly crooner named Roller Royle broke both of their hearts at a dance hall 10 miles away. We learn that experience caused both to shut themselves away. And both told Ada (Katja Hill), their younger sister, the story throughout her childhood to convince her it was safest if she remained with them forever.
Now, some two to three decades later, the tale has become a ritual, regularly repeated. The retellings of its passages and points of view are augmented by sound effects from a cheap cassette tape player and costumes that by now have turned grotesque: the party dresses both wore on the night in question. In a corner of the room, two desk lamps mounted on the walls serve as improvised spotlights for a soapbox stage where some of the narratives are told. And the one who ruthlessly supervises and stage-manages these recitals—driving Breda and Clara on through them—is Ada. The three are frequently interrupted by the fishmonger, Patsy (Ivey), who harbors desires nearly as long denied as the women's.
Walsh's language is by turns poetic, passionate, irreverent and caustic; his script brims with the details of a small village filled with long-held memories—and grudges held even longer. The inner desires and yearnings the two older sisters relate as they prepare for what they hope is a life-changing night of romance resonate with an enviable clarity.
But this riveting tale most clearly demonstrates what happens when a story of victimhood extends an evening of trauma into a lifetime of regret—and then spills over into the lives of those who follow. Under Jeff Storer's nuanced direction, this strong quartet also reveals what happens when fantasies leave people totally unequipped to deal with life's betrayals and disappointments.
As rockabilly icon Billy Fury croons the narcotic ballad "You Don't Know," Walsh's lesson arrives with devastating impact. The life stories we invest in can heal as well as cripple, and liberate or cage. Let us choose wisely.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The tales that disable."