The power of the mind to create its own private world and stave off intense loneliness is the crucible of Pondling, written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman and directed by Paul Meade. Eerily acted in an intricate solo performance, the play propels us through the intellect and soul of Madeleine, who spends most of her time alone and remains estranged and isolated from her brother and grandfather on a dairy farm in Ireland.
As Madeleine explains and enacts the moments of her life, we become the nonjudgmental listeners; we are the diary in her “Dear Diary” entries. She writes upon us revealing her deepest secrets, obsessions and humiliations. Her recounted events encapsulate her fragile identity, self-loathing, megalomania, bravado, and intense child-like desire to be anyone but who she is.
But she doesn’t break down in weak moments and admit any of this to herself. She is uncannily self-obtuse. And it is her entreaties to us and herself that spur her on to act to achieve her goals and attempt to make her dreams reality.
As Madeleine discusses her life on the farm, we realize that she understands deeply that she is a soul apart; we see she is alienated from others and, like a mystic, internalizes experiences and sees with a perspective that others would find daft. To them she would be a fragmented individual whose halting, slow speech and unusual, quirky behavior belies that she most probably is mentally challenged, if not mildly psychotic. The playwright and performer imply this, not so subtly.
On the other hand, Madeleine has purpose and her actions are meaningful. Her personality and determination are strong and she creates her own world, which she inhabits like a princess and later like a beautiful swan.
Madeleine has no feminine role models; her mother and father are not present and we might assume they died, or left her and her brother with the grandfather who raised them. From what she tells us, her grandfather and brother tolerate her, “let her hold the torch to distract her from her uselessness.” They don’t allow her to help on the farm because, we assume, she is not capable. She is disassociated from interacting with them especially in the evenings when in the study they “have conversations about poetry and killing animals.” She stays away, waits and listens for “some nugget of wisdom.”
On the farm, she tells us, she does things that “need to be done,” that “no one else thinks of.” Her descriptions are unintentionally humorous. She makes “daisy chains” and “tiny pebble fortresses for small people and creatures.” She does the “tough, odd jobs that no one else is brave or clever enough” to accomplish. Her friends are the chickens. She talks to them and in turn understands their ways. They listen and keep her secrets in their “little chicken hearts,” as we, the diary she writes upon, try to fathom her funny weirdness, her symbols.
Most important, she tells us and the chickens about the turning point of her life, her first meeting with Johnno. She loves Johnno Boyle O’Connor, the 14-year-old who is the “older man” in her sphere of existence. He is the fearful “passage of love” that stands before her. He is the one who will one day understand that, of course, he should marry her.
Madeleine has achieved an element of equilibrium inhabiting this world of hers where she is stylish in her black and shiny shoes. However, when the dreams of her relationship with Johnno begin to take flight and she pursues him to the edges of reality, we sense she has achieved the apex of the mountain and the rest will be a downhill slide.
Every week she shops at a store where he goes to buy cigarettes because she will see him and be able to “wink” or “wave.” They do not speak. For him the “encounter” is probably meaningless. In her world, the meet-up, though brief, is beautiful.
It is at this juncture that we know Madeleine’s creation has engulfed her and her obsession with Johnno has consumed her soul. The playwright has planted clues ahead of time that her fanciful perspective about their hoped-for “relationship” is becoming the crucible in which she will be sorely tried. Where her fantasies had been her salvation, we intuit that they will become her undoing and destruction.
The director and playwright have adroitly worked to graduate Madeleine’s intensity into a passion that will fire everything in its path. As she recounts her experiences, we understand that she is capable of muted violence against those who unwittingly harm her. For example Madeleine gets revenge on a cow who defecates on her shoes when she is milking it. She enjoys crushing cans in the can crusher and with each violent slam we shudder. In her descriptions of these circumstances and responses to other events, we recognize the all-too-familiar wide-eyed innocent madness of an unpredictable personality: ghoulish, yet maniacally funny.
When Madeleine imbues an innocent farm flower with the power to kill what she hates (her brother and the cows), we can liken this to an immature, puerile ranting. When she applies the same hatred to Johnno’s “long armed girlfriend,” we sit up and question. What evil intentions lie in the heart of this benign, mentally challenged and highly imaginative young girl? And to what extent have the “mentally challenged elements” spilled over into fomenting a psychically damaged personality that is speeding into a fantastical abyss from which she will never be able to return?
The play presents these menacing questions and yet offers a soft respite in the imaginative artistry of Madeleine’s dreams. She is a network of dualities: an innocent and a malevolent; a creator and a devourer; a child and a passionate, obsessed woman. What will happen to her if she is allowed to fulfill her dreams? What will happen if she is thwarted?
The last events in this tour de force rise to a climax that is surprising and inevitable. The answers were there; perhaps we were too nonjudgmental, too open and empathetic to see the end coming. Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Madeleine is a characterization and portrayal that is not easily forgotten. With the staging and props scattered with superb utility, the fine direction and acting make for a beautiful, grotesque, haunting and suspenseful production.