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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

tell.

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

promiscuity.

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

Portia Coughlan, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. On the Second Stage OnStage to January 31.


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