Secrets fuelled by stoic silence, oozing through the cracks of life, is the stuff of much good drama. And so it is with this insightful trio of soliloquies written and performed by playwright and actress Janet Behan, in her latest exploration of religion, Ireland and stifling convention.
The three stories in this often nakedly emotional package takes us through the damaging experiences of three different middle aged women. Behan manages the ticklish task of showing the women’s facade of survival whilst ably exposing their vulnerability within.
In Realtine, a modest, embarrassed adult learner in a creative writing class reads out her secret story. Behan cleverly draws us in to these horrors and oppression as the woman’s words become slowly darker.
The second woman Noreen is an altogether more bitter figure. Behan switches effortlessly between the vastly different characters, with no discernible props or make up, except for a lone chair and face etched with Noreen’s hurt and fury.
Noreen is a railer and spitter, inveighing against the unseen woman next door whom she perceives to be living a vastly contrasted privileged life, devoid of pain. Behan advances Noreen’s own victimhood at her hidden secret with an impressive believable malevolence.
These first two women could not be further apart in their attempts at psychological redemption but Behan gives us both with stark compassion.
What distinguish these women’s stories from so much maudlin romanticisation of Irish female experience is that Behan refuses to shy away from addressing their supine culpability in their own fate. This is a welcome nuanced addition to a particularly fraught canon.
Lastly we have Susan, a woman who accepted the Fifties conventions of a traditional Northern Irish wife and mother until human passion eventually took hold. This is probably the most affecting of Behan’s stories as we move through Susan’s anguish at the price she has paid to her yearning in later life.
A kitchen assistant’s tabard and a stool are all that Behan requires to take us on Susan’s poignant journey down the years. The night I saw it there was a moving palpable sympathy for Susan in the audience.
Imagery is possibly one of Behan’s greatest strengths with these stories as a writer. A profound use of language which takes the smallest of details — Susan’s early suitor’s Moccasin driving shoes — to illustrate a greater whole of stifling mores and quiet enslavement.
These stories are not just Irish tales but contain universal truths about women, particularly our habit of succumbing to external pressures against internal better judgment. It is to Behan’s credit that she manages to make the injuries of these three women not a one-dimensional shrill cry but a compassionate telling with this intelligent, layered work. Go see.