Preview: ‘The Hen Night Epiphany’

The little Corrib Theatre's biggest production ever gathers some of the city's finest actresses

Portland’s Corrib Theatre is a tiny company about to take its first big step.

Launched in the fall of 2012 by the Irish-born stage director Gemma Whelan and software designer/photographer/theater aficionado Win Goodbody, Corrib focuses on contemporary Irish stage literature and so far has presented a few staged readings and two solo shows so spare that if the actor had walked away you’d never guess you were looking at a theatrical set — because you’d more likely be looking at, say, an unadorned banquet room in Kells Irish Pub.

Now, Corrib (named after a river and lake on the west coast of Ireland) is offering something a bit more elaborate. Jimmy Murphy’s The Hen Night Epiphany, which opens Saturday night at CoHo Theater, features a cast of five and a full complement of scenic, sound and lighting designs.

The hens in rehearsal for an all-night epiphany

The hens in rehearsal for an all-night epiphany

It’s a gamble —as perhaps is any show by a fledgling company. Goodbody no longer is involved because, according to Whelan, he felt Corrib wasn’t ready to mount a full production of this size in a traditional theater.

But Whelan’s faith isn’t unfounded. The previous Corrib productions — Ted Roisum in Conor McPherson’s deeply reflective vampire tale St. Nicholas and Damon Kupper in Marie Jones’ A Night in November, about football and the bitter Protestant/Catholic divide — have been absorbing pieces of theater, their simplicity of presentation underscoring the depth of detailed interpretive craft brought to the texts. And a staged reading of Hen Night at CoHo last summer showed the promise of this script as well.

One laudable feature is that Hen Night has a clutch of rewarding roles for women, which remain strangely hard to find in theater today. “That was a very important factor for me,” Whelan says. “It’s about today, the reality of women’s rights in the 21st century and in Ireland right now.

“I like the way these characters come together for each other, in good times but then in bad as well. There’s nothing cloying about these characters or their relationships. That, to me, was a big attraction as well. Plus, it’s hilarious. Despite dealing with a serious topic, it’s not a dreary play at all.”

The term “hen night” refers to a social gathering of women, but more specifically to the tradition we Yanks are more likely to call a bachelorette party. In Murphy’s play, a quintet of women trudge up a hill to run-down country cottage recently bought by the bride-to-be, Una. They plan to drink themselves silly toasting the coming nuptials, but between Una, a pair of her pals and a couple of older women from her fiancé’s side, they end up spilling more painful secrets than liquor.

“A lot of truths are revealed,” Whelan says, “however much they all try to keep them in.”

A familiar device — a bruise explained away as a result of clumsiness and furniture — is employed early;  attuned audience members will see the revelations of domestic abuse coming, even amid the comedic banter that makes up much of the play. However painful some of the experiences related, the knots of hope and regret, shame and fear bond the women as much as bind them.

“The play doesn’t give any easy answers,” Whelan says. “But it peels back the layers of a topic people want to talk about. There’s a history of hiding these things, of trying to sweep them under the rug.”

As affecting as last summer’s reading was, Whelan says a full rehearsal process has allowed her and her cast to bring much more out of the story.

Whelen

Gemma Whelan, director and guiding light

“For a reading, you do the best you can, but you’re skimming a lot,” she says. “I’ve talked to people who’ve said, ‘Well, I went to the reading, so I’ve seen the play already.’ But having the chance to delve into the lives of these characters and find out really who they are, there are layers and layers we were able to find.”

Digging in along with Whelan is a cast including some of the city’s finest actresses. Jamie M. Rae and Third Rail Rep stalwart Jacklyn Maddux reprise their roles from the reading, and are joined this time by Amanda Soden, Dana Millican and Luisa Sermol.

Across the Atlantic, the hen night tradition is growing and becoming more commercialized. A 2013 BBC article pegged the growing “stag and hen phenomenon” as an industry pulling in an annual 257 million pounds, with average party spending at about 110 pounds — or, in stateside terms, enough $184 parties to rack up about $432 million.  Whelan, though, says she didn’t have one herself.

“No, it’s not really my thing,” she says, then adds: “Well, actually, when I got married, a friend of mine threw me a tea party. So it was a non-traditional hen night, but then, Una’s isn’t a traditional one either.”

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Corrib’s The Hen Night Epiphany opens Saturday, June 7. at CoHo Theatre and continues through June 29. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

2 Responses.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    This sounds like a fascinating look at that phenomenon of secret-keeping that continues to permeate our modern life. Gemma Whelan’s tenacity inspires and I applaud her belief in the work. Great write-up, Marty. You seem to capture the true essence of a conversation and I always appreciate that.

  2. Vana O'Brien says:

    I saw this meaty little show on opening night and it packs a wallop- funny, well-acted, poignant and completely believable….guys don’t come off real well well in their stories, alas- but like I said, believable. Where is Cuchulain when we need him?

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