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Probing the Past

Four generations of Irish women struggle with love and resentment in "The Mai"

By Julie Mehta

Dealing with the legacy of the past is at the poignant heart of The Mai, the thoughtful first production of the Irish Cultural Society that contains insights into family travails that ring true in any culture. The show, mounted by the society's Lightkeepers Theatre Group, is the American premiere of Marina Carr's play, which won honors at the Dublin Theatre Festival when it opened in 1994.

It is the tale of the loves and resentments of four generations of Irish women told through a series of confrontations and conversations over two summers. The matriarch of the clan is 100-year-old Grandmother Fraochlan (Dierdre E. O'Connor), whose passion for her now-deceased husband consumed her to the exclusion of all else, including her children. This makes her an easy scapegoat for her daughters Julie (Ada McDaniel) and Agnes (Laurie Pines), who blame her for everything from the death of their sister Ellen to their own unfulfilled lives.

The daughters spend most of their time gossiping about their nieces' troubles, and they get plenty of fodder for their vicarious amusement. Connie (Lie Talbot) is locked in a dull marriage and sister Beck (Glenys Wyn) flits from one loveless relationship to another. The third sister, called the Mai (Mary Regan), is dealing with the return of her husband, Robert (Tom Hardy), an aspiring cellist who walked out on her and their five children. She is unwilling to reject Robert and go it alone again, instead finding some perverse pride in being the one he comes home to after he's done playing around.

Though the women all speak of their husbands, Robert is the only male character in this ensemble of strong women, and he serves mainly as a catalyst for Mai's soul-searching. As Mai desperately tries to discover the point where her life changed from one of hope to one of regret, she has painful quarrels with Robert that reveal how even the silliest of trifles can cause lasting pain when love is involved. After a particularly brutal match, Mai, Connie and Beck talk wistfully of how they wish they could be free of the men in their lives and sing a mournful ballad as they huddle together on the couch, wine glasses in hand.

The action all takes place in Mai's house, with a large picture window overlooking a lake. Effective lighting changes convey changing mood and the sense that time is leaving the characters' dreams behind. The play is loosely tied together by the soothing strains of Robert's cello and the narration of Mai's eldest daughter, Millie (Gerardine Kelly), who recounts ancient legends about the lake and metaphor-laden anecdotes from the pasts and futures of various characters. This time-shifting process is sometimes confusing, and although the stories are intriguing, they are not always grounded in the action of the play.

Director Meagan K. Davidson's cast picks up steam as the story unfolds. O'Connor does a wonderful job of making Grandmother Fraochlan warm and endearing despite, or perhaps because of, her faults. And Wyn plays the jaded Beck with wit and intelligence. Regan tries admirably to make Mai's introspective lines easy to swallow, but the blocking does not give her enough to do as she wrestles with her demons. And though Hardy, who plays Robert, and Regan maintain a high level of emotional intensity, they often fall out of their accents during arguments.

The Mai plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm through April 27 at the Spangenberg Theater, 780 Arastradero Rd., Palo Alto.
Tickets are $15. (415/354-8220)

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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