Madonna and Child
It’s been barely a matter of months now since a national referendum ensured that a young, distressed, pregnant teenager could finally avail of an abortion. Yet it wasn't that long ago when the very idea of teenage pregnancy was enough to bring untold scandal and shame upon the young girl in question. Enough to warrant her being ostracised from the God fearing, Catholic community she was raised in, leaving her alone with her pregnancy to face an uncaring world. This stigma led to many unforgivable atrocities, the most notorious being the industrial scale, inhumane response of The Magdalene Laundries. Then there was the Ann Lovett case in 1984, where fifteen year old Ann Lovett died, along with her newborn baby son, giving birth alone in a Marian grotto in Granard. The story of Ann Lovett serves as the jumping off point for Irene Kelleher’s debut play “Mary and Me,” where a fictional, fifteen year old Hannah from Kilthomas finds herself pregnant in the late 1980s. Be advised: you better buckle up for this one. Because Kelleher is going to make you fall completely in love with Hannah from Kilthomas. Then she is going to break your heart.
In Kelleher’s stunning debut, the adorable Hannah finds herself frequenting the local Marian grotto to talk with the statue of the blessed virgin Mary of the play’s title. Along with Mary Junior, namely the broken kneed statue of the sainted Mary Magdalene. Hannah really wants to pray, tries to pray, but to hell with it, she’s just going to be herself and just speak what’s on her mind, saying it as it is. She wants to pass her Maths exam. And she’s happy to make a deal with Mary if only she’ll agree to help her. So begins a long series of conversations between Hannah and the two Marys, in which Hannah asks the big theological questions: what was Mary’s surname, what was she like before the whole baby thing happened which robbed her of all the simple joys of life, did she enjoy a full Nazareth for breakfast? Yet such vitally important questions prove secondary, for Mary is someone to whom Hannah can bare her soul, the only person who actually listens without judgement. Something that becomes increasingly important as Hannah’s periods disappear, her stomach starts to swell, and her family, friends, and community essentially disown her. But that’s okay, if Mary could give birth in a stable, Hannah’s more than capable of giving birth in a grotto. Alone. Isn’t she?
Kelleher’s Hannah might well be a precocious fifteen year old, but with “Mary and Me,” Kelleher proves she’s no shrinking violet herself. Indeed, both in writing and performance, Kelleher is light years ahead of much of the posse. Sharp, insightful, humorous, moving, Kelleher’s searing and beautifully articulated script is only matched by her impeccable performance. Beautifully directed by Belinda Wild, the subtleties of script and performance are made wonderfully hypnotic throughout. Transforming Hannah into a close encounter of the first kind, Kelleher’s performance is simply ravishing. Sure, it can feel like Hannah’s oversharing a little at times, but Kelleher knows when to pull it in, let it loose, and let it go. Addressing the audience directly, as if they were the eponymous Mary, is not simply a clever device. It’s a way for Kelleher to ensure we connect with Hannah, with her projections, her fears, her hopes, her dreams, all made visceral by a laughing, drooling, tearstained immediacy that’s up close and personal: looking at you, telling you, engaging you, pleading with you, making you complicit, making you understand, making you her friend, making you responsible. For what happens to the next Hannah ultimately depends on you.
Yet “Mary and Me” is not without its issues. If stunningly performed, transitions between scenes, which often unexpectedly end, aren’t always as clearly articulated as they might have been. Not helped by an over active soundscape by Cormac O’Connor, which interrupts more than informs Kelleher’s performance. With sounds seeming to randomly, rather than structurally, appear, and with music often overwhelming delivery, or sounding like it’s bleeding in from the bar below, sounds often prove to be both unnecessary and counter productive. For Kelleher is more than capable of commanding the stage on her own without them, even if Away In A Manger highlights what could have been had O’Connor been more circumspect. Far more satisfying is Lisa Zagone’s stunning autumnal set design, with its Stonehenge style pillars evoking both pagan and Christian motifs, along with its constellation of fallen leaves.
In “Mary and Me,” Kelleher never resorts to trite, cheap shots at personal belief, even if religious institutions and their often inhumane dogmas are deservedly seen as fair game. Kelleher shows too much class, cleverness, and sophistication for that. Rather than venting obvious, self righteous spleen, Kelleher prefers to give voice to a young girl silenced by society and history, and allows her cries, joys, hopes, and prayers to be heard. Which prove to be far more compelling in saying what needs to be said. “Mary and Me” has deservedly won critical acclaim everywhere it’s played. It would be a crime, and a shame, if ”Mary and Me” doesn’t go on to enjoy even greater recognition. A powerful production wrapped up in a powerhouse performance, go see it now while you still can. For with "Mary and Me” Kelleher suggests she might well be touched by genius.
“Mary and Me” by Irene Kelleher, produced by Patrick Talbot productions, runs at The Viking Theatre until July 21
For more information, visit The Viking Theatre