Nobody dies like the Irish, who have made an art of it. As the heroine of playwright Marina Carr’s marvelous Woman and Scarecrow—currently receiving a spellbinding production by Irish Heritage Theatre—remarks almost matter-of-factly: “The whole point of living is preparing to die.”
You may not agree with Carr here, but it would be hard to argue with her extraordinary understanding that death is not one thing but many. It is by turns sad, joyful, angry, and funny; also scary and mundane; profound and ordinary; frustrating and satisfying. And much, much more.
Theatergoers familiar with Irish drama have generally seen a lot of death, mostly of male characters and chronicled by male writers. Here, that is tellingly reversed, as a female playwright tells a very female-centric story.
Woman (as she is called—we never know her by another name) lies in bed. Though still in early middle age, she is in the final throes of an illness, which she talks about almost constantly to Scarecrow, her rather gloomy female companion.
Seen here, the two are a fascinating pair: actress Kirsten Quinn is a glowingly charismatic Woman, appropriately if paradoxically brimming with vitality even in her twilight moments; and Mary Lee Bednarek is a fierce, angular-yet-magnetic Scarecrow. Also in occasional attendance are the ditzy but maternal Auntie Ah (Tina Brock, wonderful) and Him, Woman’s now-estranged husband (David Bardeen, also superb).
And that’s all you’ll get from me in terms of the plot. To say more would potentially spoil the discoveries. But I will add that Carr’s writing is gorgeously poetic, at once very much in the classic Irish tradition and boldly stepping out of it with bracing individuality. Of course, there are moments of sentiment—how could it be otherwise, given the topic?—but more often Carr punctures them with mordant wit and ruthless insight.
The four estimable actors—among Philly’s best—are as good here as I’ve ever seen them. Director Peggy Mecham masterfully realizes the complex amalgam of tones—if I’m less convinced by the elements here of magical realism, that’s in part my resistance to the style, and also that Irish Heritage Theatre is necessarily working on a budget.
But talent is always the ultimate luxury commodity in the theater—and here, in Irish Heritage Theater’s marvelous show, it’s absolutely blue-chip.
Woman and Scarecrow runs through November 9th. For more information, visit the Irish Heritage Theatre website.