The material and the incorporeal realms collide and envelop the lives and minds of the characters Masher and Rasher in The Cell’s production of the dark, haunting world of Crackskull Row by Honor Molloy, directed by Kira Simring at at Irish Repertory Theatre.
On a May eve in 1999, Rasher finishes his prison sentence and returns home to face the dusty dreams of his youth and see the one whom he lived and killed for, his mother, the once lovely Dolly, now a wreck of woman who calls herself Masher. But before mother and son confront each other about the fateful night that destroyed both of their lives and sent them into a hellish existence, we are taken on a dark and foreboding journey to the past through Masher’s metaphysical attempts to confront her dark deeds and reconcile herself with the present truth.
Playwright Molloy’s setup is a twisted confluence of Masher’s demented reality, the magical realism of haunting spirits, and a lodestone of guilt and recrimination. Masher cannot wash away her torments through self-forgiveness as long as her partner in wickedness (imprisoned Rasher) has been artificially obliterated from her memory by misery and grief. It is when he returns to see her after his 33-year prison sentence that a reconciliation and dark reckoning occurs between them, prompted by the ever-present malevolence of spirits (within themselves) who usher them toward a fitting conclusion.
At the outset of the play after Colin Lane’s Rasher leaves prison (bars in the frame of a doorway suggest this as he addresses the audience), we are introduced to the once-beautiful Dolly, now old Masher (an exquisite and very fine performance by Terry Donnelley). She lives alone, forgotten by humanity, in a place of squalor and desolation on Crackskull Row, which is in Dublin but may as well be the end of the world. The time is the evening of May 2 when there is little separation between concrete reality and the spirit realms, and the nature of time is warped so the present glides into the past and circles back into the present again without interruption.
Emotionally and mentally in pieces, Masher materializes the dead, with whom she maintains an ongoing relationship, though we are not apprised of this initially. At first, we believe Wee Dolly to be who she says she is, Masher’s grown-up daughter who emerges from the fireplace to attend to her mother’s needs. In fact Wee Dolly (Gina Costigan portrays both Wee Dolly and Dolly) is an incorporeal being who “trucks” with Masher and is a seminal part of the latter’s being/imagination. Wee Dolly is a younger version of Dolly – Masher is the dissolute, older women years after the traumatic event – and is hard, rough-mouthed and reckless as her mother Dolly was before Dolly’s world shattered and she became Masher.
Is Wee Dolly an offshoot of Masher’s demented mind attempting to confront guilt? Or is she Masher’s self-recriminations materialized as a ghost to torture her? Is she imagined to provide Masher company? The playwright teases us to accept various interpretations because her characterizations manage to be interesting, unique, and “low-down,” even if they are at times opaque. Thus, we “go with the flow” of the weird, though Masher’s insanity/dementia and schizoid personality disorder also explain the presence of Wee Dolly and the dreamscape flashbacks to 1966 and flashfowards to 1999 with the other characters.
The drama is in how the play gradually deciphers the mystery of Masher’s and Rasher’s soul-shattering by revealing their impact in the present: Rasher’s forbidding return from a notorious prison sentence, Masher’s decrepit physical and emotional state. Eventually, at the golden moment of revelation near the end, we understand how the traumatic events shaped their living-dead existence. Through flashbacks we are able to understand how and why Masher devolved, redefined herself, and, with the help or curse of the spirits/her imaginings, attempts to expiate what cannot be expiated and right what can never be righted.
Molloy adds just enough of a narrative bridge, with snippets of poetic narrative, for us to understand how Masher’s deranged emotions effect the personages we see in various scenes. These are Masher’s remembrances as she flashes back to Dolly, her younger self, and in the present, the manifestation of Wee Dolly, the grown daughter who never was because Dolly/Masher miscarried her at five months.
Gina Costigan portrays Dolly (1966) and Wee Dolly (1999) with specificity and exacting hardness in the time before the trauma savaged her identity into the fragments we see years later as Masher. Costigan, well shepherded by Simring and the script, intimates the handprints of the future, the characteristics which will lead to the damning of Dolly’s soul in her defiant, reckless wantonness and inability to control her own destiny and desires.
Yet in Dolly and in Costigan’s portrayal, the playwright, actor and director have crafted a young woman with whom we may identify, for Dolly is a survivalist. As the past is recalled to Masher’s mind in flashback scenes leading up to the 1966 event, she remembers who she was as Dolly. In these scenes we understand how Dolly is driven to overcome a physically and emotionally abusive husband, Basher (Colin Lane), for the sake of her teenage son Rasher (John Charles McLaughlin), and herself.
Lane beautifully portrays grown-up Rasher with an underlying sinister intent and steely foreboding. He is a dark presence and we sense portent in his arrival on this particular symbolic evening in 1999 to search out his mother, the broken-down Masher. We question why he would even want to return home since she never visited him in prison, nor provided succor during his 33 long and horrific prison years. He returns to answer questions, to confront her and the traumatic event, to discover the truth.
In the 1966 flashback scene of revelation that Masher finally is able to recall through the help of spirits/imaginings, Lane portrays a threatening, abusive Basher, Rasher’s father and Dolly’s wayward, negligent, alcoholic husband. A foundering musician dreaming of “making it big with one song,” Basher returns home drunk with Nelson’s sword, which he finds on the ground after the IRA dynamited the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson that had stood in Dublin for 158 years.
The symbolism of the statue’s destruction is an irony that frees Basher’s soul toward the belief that he has regained a purpose in his life and will now succeed (perhaps released from an oppression the statue symbolized). It is a recognition not appreciated by Dolly, who provokes him to a physical row that upends all of their lives. The confrontation among Basher, the interceding Young Rasher (McLaughlin is winning and sensitive), and Dolly has no surprises and yet manages to be shocking and tragic. This is the still point in time; after it we understand all.
Then the scene shifts and 1966 dissolves into 1999. Rasher confronts Masher at Crackskull Row for the first time after that fateful night that destroyed their lives. Rasher and Masher appear to reconcile and forgive one another, but the spirits are present within them. Rasher may not be forgiving after all.
This is above all a dynamic and fascinating tale of a family at its most primitive and self-retributive. The set, costumes, staging and lighting are functional, evocative and atmospheric. The director and design crew’s excellent work conveys the play’s symbolism and themes about revenge, hopelessness, the inability to escape from one’s failed destiny, misapplied love, escapism through the surreal, the damnation of guilt and self-torment, and the need for forgiveness.
Crackskull Row is being presented at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 W. 22nd St), after receiving the Best Production award at Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival 2016. It runs until 19 March and is 80 minutes without an intermission. You can purchase tickets online.