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Theatre in Review: When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout (Fallen Angel Theatre/Theatre Row)

Barrie Kreinik, Zoë Watkins, Aedin Moloney. Photo: Carol Rosegg

About halfway through Sharman Macdonald's drama, a dispute erupts between Fiona, an adolescent girl, and Morag, her mother; the argument is ostensibly about running to the store for sanitary napkins -- Fiona is in serious need of them, and, for reasons we'll address in a moment, she stubbornly refuses to leave the house. Morag, a strict but kind sort, suddenly loses control of the temper she has so assiduously held in check. "I saw you when you were born," she begins. "Two hours I was in labor with you and you ripped me right up to my bum. You came out from between my legs and your eyes were open. You knew exactly what you'd done. The midwife held you up. You looked right at me. You didn't cry. No, madam. Not you. You gave me look for look." The speech goes on for more than two dozen lines of lacerating fury, excoriating Fiona for, among other things, playing up to her (long-gone) father and behaving like an unregenerate flirt around the local boys. These aren't just the words of a frustrated parent; they are meant to wound, deeply and lastingly.

It's typical of this fraught mother-daughter relationship that, as soon as she has savaged her daughter, Morag takes it all back, saying she will always love Fiona, who looks her mother straight in the eye and says, "You're a whore."

This scene, harrowingly played by Aedín Moloney, as Morag, with an assist from Barrie Kreinik, is the highlight of When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, which pits the demands of Morag's sexuality against Fiona's emerging desires, tracing the fallout, many years later, from this conflict. When we first meet them, it is 1983 and mother and adult daughter are vacationing at the seaside. Oddly, Morag, who has financed the getaway, has brought them back to the East Scotland town where Fiona was born -- a strange choice, since it cannot be said to be the locus of many happy memories. Anyway, there is plenty of conflict percolating in the present. Morag keeps warning the thirtyish Fiona that she is throwing her life away. "No man. No money. No child," is her clinical estimation. Just to make sure that her point is getting across, she adds, "Your Auntie Nelly had the menopause at thirty."

The two women are soon joined by Vari, Fiona's childhood friend, and the action jumps back and forth between 1983 and earlier days: We see the girls playing silly games, affixing "penises" (really pencils) to each other and coming up with fanciful theories about the getting of babies; there is also an abortive "practice" session in which Vari, assuming the male role, simulates making love to Fiona. We also see how the unhappily married (and, later, abandoned) Morag imposes her lace-curtain inhibitions on her daughter. Catching Fiona in bed "jigging" -- a reference to a form of masturbation -- Morag informs her that little girls who continue such practices are sent "all the way down to the devil, who's like a snake, only worse, and the devil sticks you on a spit and roasts you in the fires of hell so he can eat you for dinner." If ever a household would have benefited from a subscription to Cosmopolitan, this is it.

Despite this kind of talk -- and its inevitable scarring effects -- Morag and Fiona form a complete family unit, until Morag confesses that she has fallen for a man and wants Fiona to meet him. Fiona, her mother's daughter, immediately grills Morag for the details: Has she slept with him? Morag's evasive answer speaks volumes, and suddenly the situation is reversed, with the daughter severely judging the erring parent, thus triggering the venomous argument mentioned above. Fiona's fury turns to panic when she learns that Morag is planning on running off with her lover to the Middle East -- he works in the oil industry -- leaving Fiona to live as a paid boarder with Vari's family. Feeling betrayed, Fiona hatches a plot that will break off the relationship once and for all.

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout was acclaimed when first presented in London in 1984, putting Macdonald at the forefront of an emerging generation of women playwrights who were willing to candidly discuss female sexuality. The play is less impressive now, because the subject matter has lost its novelty value -- but there are other problems as well. For one thing, sexuality is the only thing anyone talks about in this play, to the point of near monotony. Also, Fiona's childhood experiences are recounted in detail, yet we learn little or nothing of her adult self, a decision that leaves her pretty much a cipher. (For that matter, we have no real sense of how Morag has conducted her life in recent years.) This is baffling, since Vari, a relatively minor character, is given many speeches describing her disappointing marriage, motherhood, and her struggles with weight. She is more vividly drawn by far than either of the two leads. Finally, Macdonald was a first-time playwright and the machinery of her plot is often too exposed; this is especially true of the subplot involving the young man whom Fiona rather cynically uses in her plan to reclaim her exclusive hold on Morag; you can see what's coming and it takes a long while to get there. Finally, the blowback from Fiona's plan -- not to be discussed here -- should leave far more lasting wounds than are shown here; as presented, both Fiona and Morag come off as surprisingly callous. --David Barbour

John Keating's direction could have picked up the pace a little bit, but he gets fine work from Moloney, recently of the excellent cast of Women Without Men, as Morag, whether she is filling Fiona's head with misinformation, ruthlessly assessing her attractiveness ("If you cut off my head, I'd look 19"), or unleashing her long-held-back rage. As Fiona, Kreinik moves deftly between exploratory youth and rueful adulthood, but she is partly constrained by the character's enigmatic qualities. Zoë Watkins captures Vari's brassy yet thwarted soul, and Colby Howell makes a solid impression as the young boy who is stunned to find out that men can be used sexually, too.

Adding plenty to the atmosphere is Luke Hegel Cantarella's seaside setting with its piercing blue sky, the effect of which is supported by Jessica M. Kasprisin's lighting and M. Florian Staab's repertoire of beach-related sounds. Nikki Delhomme's costumes reveal much about how the three female characters see their own bodies.

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout ends on an inconclusive note -- a realistic choice, perhaps, but an oddly unsatisfying one. For all their screaming and shouting, Fiona and Morag aren't terribly interesting people and it takes too long to play out their drama. A play that once must have seemed groundbreaking now comes across as terribly tame. -- David Barbour

(20 April 2016)

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