Among ladies who call each other “Lads” and toast each other with “bitch whiskey,” you’d think there’d be no secrets, no topics too taboo. But you’d be wrong, as we gradually learn in Jimmy Murphy’s The Hen Night Epiphany.
Bride-to-be Una has decided to spend her hen night (aka bachelorette party) introducing her friends to her future home, a real fixer-upper in the hills outside of Dublin. After kicking up a fuss about their hike from the car, the remoteness of the place, and the accommodations (tents in an overgrown and littered yard), the gang settles in for a long evening of drinking…but each of their thoughts are elsewhere. Triona has been arguing with her long-term live-in man-child boyfriend, and this event has keened her worry that they’ll never marry. Kelly, a serial short-term dater, has just split with a would-be wedding escort who she’d seemed to really like. Anta, Una’s godmother, is racked with lingering guilt about her late husband. And Olive, Una’s future mother-in-law, has doubts about the match and the house; she resents Una for spiriting her son away from town. All subsequent plot details would be spoilers—not of action, but of the various revelations that surface as the evening wares on, leaving the characters with nothing to do but talk.
This show is a milestone for the relatively new Corrib Theatre: it’s the company’s first fully-staged production in a true theater space. Where prior shows have been fully acted but staged in tastefully bare rooms, for this one Kristeen Willis Crosser packs the CoHo set chock full of scenic elements that double as props. Summer Olsson chooses simple, modern costuming (knit casual separates, Teva sandals) and a dab of special-effects makeup to help sell the story.
“I like that Jimmy Murphy sets the play squarely in the 21st century,” remarks director Gemma Whelan. To wit: Una obtained the house after tenants who couldn’t pay their mortgage during the recent crisis were hastily evicted. The yard is still littered with their children’s toys. The other modern touch is equally impossible to miss: the women frequently excuse themselves to talk on their cell phones, demonstrating that there’s no longer any such thing as a true “getaway.” Even so…some distance from Dublin seems to provide perspective on problems that are not at all contemporary, but rather timeless and undeniably gendered.
Murphy’s capture of a female group dynamic is amazingly acute—and in this cultural moment, it has to be. With growing awareness of the Bechdel Test and a TV climate forever impacted by the strong female roles in Jenji Cohen’s Orange is the New Black, there’s a sense that storytelling can’t default back to man-centricity to the same extent that it so often has in the past. Though most of Hen Night‘s conversation (in defiance of Bechdel) is about men, its loyalties lie with the female perspective…and anyway, since they’re talking about a wedding, the women’s romantic relationships dominate the conversation more naturally than they otherwise might.
There’s a faintly discernible divide in this production along Actors’ Equity lines: those who happen to have it also happen to give slightly stronger performances. Jacklyn Maddux is compelling as the haunted, tentative Anta, painstakingly deciding how much she should or shouldn’t say. Luisa Sermol as Olive reprises some of her no-nonsense pluck from Xmas Unplugged, but this time it’s ominously overshadowed by the demon of denial. Amanda Soden as Una favors us with a variation of the loyal friend she played in Foxfinder…only this time she’s the somewhat reluctant center of attention, desperate to laugh off the group’s growing concerns with a tomboyish charisma that makes her appropriately hard for the others to oppose. Dana Millican as the high-strung, conservative Triona and Jamie M. Rea as Kelly are each plenty credible, but here and there a facial flicker betrays them. Rea, however, is particularly coordinated in her use of props, balancing unwieldy stacks of yard debris adeptly with the rigors of her role. In the small theater, such persona-inhabiting work puts everyone on the spot.
For those who’ve been following Corrib’s season, Hen Night falls squarely between the bawdy, elated energy of A Night in November and the poetic hopelessness of Tales of Ballycumber. Like the milk and liquor that combine to make “bitch whiskey,” it’s a heady mix.