It’s an interesting coincidence that at the time the Republic of Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage through popular referendum, Artemisia would be doing the American premiere of a play about women fleeing a very different Ireland. Belfast Girls, by Jaki McCarrick, has won some acclaim in the British Isles since its debut in 2011. It tells the stories of five women who semi-voluntarily immigrated to Australia in 1850, at the height of the Great Famine. Artemisia, which does staged readings and workshops more often than full productions, exists to showcase women’s work, and in this case, under artistic director Julie Proudfoot, breathes life into characters caught in a difficult and confusing transition.
Almost the entire play takes place in a single room onboard the Inchinnan, a ship going from Belfast to Sydney. Designer Ann Davis has crafted it simply, with just some bunk beds and wooden chairs. The women who are to be traveling together seem not to have been friends before, but some knew of each other. Judith Noone (McKenzie Chinn) is half black, the daughter of a Jamaican, and was a long-term resident in Belfast. She is anxious, and quickly takes charge of the situation, having no patience for any foolishness that might endanger her escape from the starving island. Hannah Gribney (Caitlin Chuckta) is rather disappointed by that, since she’d already flirted with the cook, but she’s sure there will be a fine English husband waiting to make her a proper lady as soon as she gets off the boat. No more getting sold to pimps for her. Sarah Jane Wylie (Patty Malaney) is from the countryside and already has a brother living in Australia. She spends her time fawning over her bonnets, and is oddly recalcitrant about sharing her expectations. Ellen Clarke (Lindsay Tornquist) is the most inclined to follow Judith’s instructions, more out of a desire to get along than anything else, it seems.
Though the room was allotted for four, they take on a fifth boarder, Molly Durcan (Cassandra Schiano). Claiming to have been a maid for landowners, she’s clearly different from the other women. Molly is excited about women’s suffrage movements, reads Shakespeare, once journeyed to Belfast to see a play, and introduces Judith to Marx. Judith is very interested in what communist philosophers have to say about the causes of conditions in Ireland, but also in Molly, personally. Their budding romance, however, only further alienates Hannah and Sarah Jane, who already resented Judith’s self-designated authority and were suspicious of Molly. Violence, never far from the surface, becomes life-threatening as they force Molly to reveal more about who she really is, and why it’s significant.
Officially, these passengers were all supposed to be under nineteen and of “good” character. In reality, of nearly two hundred women on the ship, most of them are prostitutes and criminals, and not petty or harmless ones, either. The five women in this story are not the kind of people who form bonds easily, and McCarrick does not sugarcoat them, or make it artificially easy for them to become friends. One of the first points of contention to erupt is rather they even ought to feel bad about leaving Ireland, or rather they’re glad to be rid of the place that is full of bad memories and presented them with only bad options. It’s the people, not the land, who are to blame, says Sarah Jane, but she’s not escaping the people.
One of the challenges which Proudfoot had to rise to was how to both focus on the five characters, while also contextualizing them within the environment of the ship, whose other occupants become relevant in a key scene. Mostly this is done through Kallie Noelle Rolison’s sound design, but the actresses deserve credit, too. Chinn and Schiano have the parts that get the most authorial attention. As Judith, Chinn is a bundle of nerves kept in check by strong survival instincts and a willingness to employ violence efficiently. Schiano’s Molly is clearly softer and more refined, and though her story is obviously a lie, she’s gentle, and she and Judith impart each other with their better qualities. Chukta uses a flirtatious sense of humor to balance and enhance her character’s seedy aspects, and Tornquist gets an excellent moment of dramatic acting late in the play. Malaney’s Sarah Jane seems like the most childish character, and though often at odds with the other women, it is easy to empathize with why.
It sounds trite to call this story a journey of self-discovery, and indeed, these women already know all too well who they are. What they learn is their place in the world: the ship was commissioned as much to get rid of them as to provide them with opportunity, and Australia will not be the land of milk and honey. McCarrick tries to educate both the characters and the audience about the historical and political dynamics at work in creating the Irish diaspora, while also maintaining dramatic tension, mostly surrounding Molly. In that, she largely succeeded, and while I think most Chicagoans will already be aware of the pressures on the nineteenth century Irish (evictions, moralistic repression, the continued export of food from Ireland to England during the Famine), McCarrick provides all these injustices with human faces. The play is not packed with excitement—the characters themselves point out that they’re not the ones causing the ship to move—but it is far from boring, and provides a fine study of characters and their world.
Reviewed May 22, 2015
For more information, see Belfast Girls’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 6:00 pm and Saturday matinees at 3:00 pm through June 16. Running time is two hours with one intermission.