‘Strandline’ straddles personal and political in Irish town

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Abbie Spallen’s “Strandline,” now receiving its ferociously acted U.S. premiere by A Red Orchid Theatre, is set in a small Irish seacoast town on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the soda bread-thick accents of its characters aside, you might very well mistake the play for a modern day Greek tragedy.

It begins as four rather hysterical women gather on a rocky shoreline watching efforts to recover a drowned man from the sea. The onlookers include: Mairin (Kirsten Fitzgerald, who can be both imperious and vulnerable in the same breath), who we later learn is a textile artist and passionate environmentalist who lives in a grand home perched high above the ocean; Clodagh (Dado, in an ideally shrewd, hard-driving turn), a tough-talking real estate developer who lives in one of the town’s upscale apartment complexes that came into being with the cessation of bloodshed following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; and Eileen (Natalie West in her best quirky, tragicomic form), the somewhat addled, alcohol-fueled wife of a long-unemployed man.

[one_third] ‘STRANDLINE’ Recommended When: Through Dec. 7 Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Tickets: $30 – $35 Info: (312) 943-8722; www.aredorchidtheatre.org Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission [/one_third]

Joining these women is Mairin’s step-daughter, Triona (Meg Warner, just right as the fiery young narcissist), whose wedding has been interrupted by the chaos at sea. And serving as a sort of mystical Celtic “boy chorus” to the events is Sweeney (John Francis Babbo), whose father has recently died, and whose promiscuous mother has run off and abandoned him.

As it happens, the drowned man is Mairin’s husband, and it is unclear whether he died accidentally or as a suicide. In any case, the ordinarily isolated and resented Mairin rather uncharacteristically invites Clodagh, Eileen and Triona to her home to mourn the death. And as the whiskey flows, so does the truth. Mairin certainly had doubts about her husband’s fidelity, but what she did not suspect was his involvement in a lucrative criminal scheme of toxic waste dumping. Suffice it to say, her world is turned upside down by the revelation.

A great deal more is revealed as the truth serum of alcohol and resentment takes full effect. But as the cynical, opportunistic Clodagh sums it all up: We all just live in a town where people have had to deal with years of political turmoil and social and economic upheaval, and people just do what they do to survive, not always behaving in the most ideal ways.

Of course there are sacrificial victims in this sort of existence, and Sweeney — the preternaturally brilliant and mystical boy — is one of them. Babbo, one of the most experienced young actors in Chicago, gives an uncanny performance. And while his lines feel far too much like the playwright’s attempt at ventriloquism, he is riveting, and, like the rest of the cast (as coached by Ann Deely) finesses the accent with immense skill.

Spallen’s play is a mix of cutting, blackly comic dialogue and lyrical, poetic riffs, and under the direction of  J.R. Sullivan (who has staged many Irish plays, including a peerless production of “The Faith Healer”), the actors infuse it with fire. But the story comes encased in a sort of impenetrable fog that lasts far too long and leaves the passion, fury and ritualistic heat of the characters often just blowing in a confusing wind. Yet blow with gale force they most certainly do.

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