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Review: `Portia Coughlan’
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 27, 1999.
All rights reserved.
When we first meet Portia Coughlan — stumbling
drunk and disheveled through her living room at 10 o’clock on a weekday
morning — she strikes us much like any other disappointed housewife.
Married at 17, and now the mother of three boys, she’s brooding and
bitter, rendered slovenly by her anger. Yet one by one these assumptions
are overturned by the drama that dredges mythic undercurrents of darkness
and despair of an extraordinary household in the Belmont Valley of
the Irish Midlands.
Marina Carr’s 1996 "Portia Coughlan," which opened on McCarter
Theater’s Second Stage last week and runs to January 31, draws us
into a well of grief and degradation as dark and slimy as the banks
of Portia’s beloved Belmont river. Beautifully directed by Blanka
Zizka, the powerful cast of 11 led by Angie Phillips, saturates the
intimate performing space with the passion and hints of joy of its
tapestry of characters, every one of whom has a daunting story to
A vision of a rippling river, a boy, and an ineffable soprano voice
precedes our meeting with Portia Coughlan (pronounced Cock-lin), on
the morning of her 30th birthday. She takes no joy in the moment:
not when her businessman husband, Raphael Coughlan returns home to
present her with a diamond bracelet, and not when friends and family
bearing greetings and gifts begin their steady procession. Though
we’re told Portia’s home is grand by local standards, its simple living
room seems as cramped and stifling to us as it does to Portia. The
lion’s share of the play’s set — and of Portia’s thoughts —
is devoted to another stage that hovers above Portia’s room, the great
shimmering, blue-green world of the Belmont river.
We soon learn that Portia’s loss, half her lifetime ago, of her fraternal
twin, Gabriel, on the night of their 15th birthday, endures as the
defining fact of her existence. Haunted by the strains of his exquisite
singing voice, she paces the room trying to evade her brother’s call.
Indelibly rooted in the river valley, she yet finds no place in it.
"Sometimes I think only half of me is left — the worse half,"
she tells her mother. And later, "Perhaps God gave us just one
soul between us, and Gabriel has it."
As a young, much-lauded playwright, Carr enjoys building her narrative-driven
plots thick with literary illusion. We cannot think of twins without
thinking of Castor and Pollux, the "Heavenly Twins" of classical
mythology, known as the constellation Gemini. These twin were born
of one mother but different fathers, and only one is immortal. Yet
their devotion is such that Zeus is persuaded to allow them to spend
alternate days together on Olympus as gods, and in Hades, as dead
mortals. (Portia has the fleeting notion that her home "must be
the dungeon of the fallen world.") The myth is also at the root
of the enduring folk belief that twins are the product of a mother’s
The saga of fraternal twins separated and believed drowned is at the
heart of Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night." And we are told that
Portia is inspired by the beloved of "The Merchant of Venice."
The play’s biblical allusions, in turn, hinge on Portia’s two lovers,
each of whom bears the name of an archangel, messenger of the divine.
Portia implores Gabriel to leave her alone: "Is Heaven not so
nice after all?" she shouts into thin air. That the lost Gabriel
is himself called "an unnatural child," and the twins’ together
described as "dark changelings," adds bouquet to Carr’s brew.
As the bereft Portia headed toward madness, Angie Phillips gives a
forceful performance. Her casual beauty and childish body language
give a clue to the girl she once was. This is matched by the time-lapsed
resemblance to young Colin Hoover Connaughton who, as the ghost of
15-year-old Gabriel, haunts all three acts.
In her role as Portia’s grandmother, the wheelchair-bound
Blaize Scully, Isa Thomas becomes the personification of evil. Each
time this foul-mouthed vessel of hateful thoughts and words enters
the Coughlan home she’s the bog-hole that everyone tries to flee.
More than a woman, she’s a force of nature.
The suggestion that Blaize is the stinking rot that has polluted the
family waters seems credible at first, until we learn her story. Are
our lives part of a plan or simply a process of "flitting from
chance to chance?" Portia asks Maggie May. But is Blaize’s dead
husband truly the source of this wreckage, or is he just a stand-in
for a cruel God?
"Portia Coughlan’s" excellent supporting cast includes Audrie
Neenan as the honest prostitute Maggie May, and Don Campbell as her
husband Senchil, a loving simpleton who, as one character remarks,
was "not born but knitted on a Sunday afternoon." Steven Skybell
is the long-suffering Raphael Coughlan, and Janis Dardaris and Tom
Bloom are the suffering parents Marianne and Sly Scully.
Drama in dialect can be challenging for audiences who hear it performed
on its home turf, but production dialect presents more difficulties.
"We talk long and slow and flat, we make a meal out of giving
someone directions," explains Carr. Although the "rough exoticism"
of her unpredictable characters’ speech is effective overall, various
snappy and outrageous exchanges escaped my ear. But then Carr seems
not to have chosen actual authenticity in her rural characters’ spoken
language, and seems to insist on bringing a bit of the schoolroom
into her domestic drama. Or do householders in the Irish Midlands
actually use words like "subtext" and "intonation"
in their daily speech?
Although death by drowning is an element common to both Carr dramas
presented at McCarter, this one alone is complex and compelling enough
to draw us deeply into its watery tale.
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-683-8000. On the Second Stage OnStage to January 31.
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