Eclipsed: Misplacing the Blame

One wants to like Eclipsed: it is about a naturally sympathetic subject and it is well acted by The Players at the Barker Playhouse, but ultimately the script was poorly written. It is the first and only significant play by Patricia Burke Brogan, who is primarily known in her native Ireland for her painting and visual art rather than for her literary efforts. The play is based upon her own experience as a novice driven out of religious life by witnessing the mistreatment of women in the Magdalene asylums.

Taken on its own terms, Eclipsed is not a bad slice-of-life drama, but it tries to do in microcosm what should not be done in microcosm. The play is hardly unwatchable – it won awards in Scotland and the United States, although interestingly not in Ireland – but it suffers from unoriginality and predictability. The foreshadowing is heavy-handed, and the scene-setting is likewise contrived. Most seriously, there is little dramatic tension in an ethical dichotomy as simplistic as that between Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash who, wisely, never drag out their conflicts across two acts and an intermission.

The focal point of the play, although not the main character, is novice “Sister Virginia” (Katie Preston), an obvious proxy for the playwright, whose conscience is unable to reconcile the profound unhappiness of the inmates with the authoritarian attitude of her superior “Mother Victoria” (Sharon Carpentier). In a dramatic sense, the mother superior is the most interesting character, the only one who makes an attempt to anchor the events we see in microcosm to the problems of the wider world, but even that totals about three lines of dialogue: Her pragmatic worldview is never developed that these unwed mothers were already ostracized by society and therefore the Magdalene asylum was a creature and creation of that society, essentially a more humane alternative than a choice between starvation and prostitution.

The core of the play is the four women and a young girl sent over from the affiliated orphanage and who consequently knows some of their children about whom they have been denied any news or information. The four are cynical and rebellious “Bridget” (Erin Malcolm) who wants most of all to find news of her daughter, street-smart “Cathy” (Lauren Annicelli) who wants most of all to escape, timid “Nellie-Nora” (Juli Parker) who wants of most of all to have any kind of a real life, and naive “Mandy” (Rachel Nadeau) who wants most of all to marry Elvis Presley. The girl is “Juliet” (Morgan A. Clark) who, although young and foolish, provides a lifeline of information from the outside world.

There is a framing story consisting of a prologue and epilogue set in 1983, two decades after the events of the play, where the adult “Rosa” (Kristin Wedel McGuirk) searching for her mother, Bridget, meets with Nellie-Nora, who apparently was unable to leave the convent, although she is dressed in street clothes suggesting that she never adopted religious life but just stayed on because she had nowhere else to go. (The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland closed only in 1996.) “Sister Margaret” is played by Peggy Becker.

Malcolm as Bridget and Annicelli as Cathy play against each other brilliantly, each an antidote preventing the other from spiraling rage into depression. Preston as Sister Virginia is an effective foil for both of them. Nadeau as Mandy almost manages to rescue a truly irritating character who is written mostly as comic relief. Parker as Nellie-Nora does the most she can with a character who is pretty much a plot device to link the framing story. Carpentier as Mother Victoria makes a superhuman effort to inflate some depth into a character the script fashions out of cardboard. This cast would have been quite impressive in a better play.

Eclipsed deserves credit for being the first of many dramatic works about the Magdalene asylums, which were prison-type workhouses for unwed mothers made necessary because the general attitude of society was to view such women as morally unsuitable to raise their children, who were therefore separated from them and placed into orphanages, and morally unsuitable for legitimate employment, meaning they could not earn a living other than by prostitution. The unwed fathers, of course, were allowed to go on with their lives with little penalty. Although the play is set in Ireland and that country has undergone much recent soul-searching about the issue, including successful films The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Philomena (2013), the former closely paralleling Eclipsed and the latter relatively faithful to a journalistic account about real people, Magdalene asylums were also common throughout Britain and the United States, including in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, from the mid-1700s.

The hugely successful Philomena – it earned a number of Oscar nominations – coincided in time with the release of the McAleese report in which the Irish government accepted state responsibility for the mistreatment of the women. Because Eclipsed was written before 1992 when it was first performed, the impressions conveyed to the audience are in important ways now known to be factually wrong. Instead of being dumped upon the Magdalene asylums by their families as in the play, the 2013 McAleese report disclosed that at least one-quarter of such women were involuntarily committed by the state and most others were under that threat. Instead of doing laundry for the bishop and other church officials as in the play, according to the McAleese report the Magdalene laundries were large-scale sweatshops that sold their services to hotel chains and even the Irish Army while government regulators ignored massive labor law violations. What made Ireland unique in the context of the Magdalene asylums was not the involvement of the Catholic Church – the first such institutions even in Ireland were exclusively Protestant, and eventually each major Christian sect maintained their own parallel system – nor the cruelty of the slave-labor conditions that were just as bad in similar institutions everywhere else in the world, but the morally bankrupt complicity of the state itself.

Eclipsed, by Patricia Burke Brogan, directed by Lynne Collinson, performed by The Players at Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD. Two acts of about 2h including intermission. Through Oct 22; Fri-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 2:00pm. Handicap accessible. Web: Telephone: 401-273-0590

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