nytheatre.com review by Joan Kane
August 12, 2012
Magdalen is beautifully written and acted by Erin Layton. Make sure you find the time to see the remaining performances of this exciting one woman show in FringeNYC. Inspired by the true stories of women and girls, Layton explores Ireland’s scandal of torture and abuse of women who were deemed promiscuous and in need of rehabilitation.
Basing a show on historical events brings a certain sense of reality to any drama. When those events were still occurring as late as 1996, the sense of immediacy is heightened even further. This sort of show reminds us that it was a cruel world in the past and it still is.
In 2004 an order of nuns in Dublin sold off part of its convent to real estate developers. The remains of 133 women were found buried in unmarked graves - they had died in a Magdalene Laundry. According to Wikipedia: "Magdalene asylums grew out of the Evangelical rescue movement in the United Kingdom during the 19th century, whose formal goal was to rehabilitate prostitutes."
The commercial laundries got their names from Mary Magdalene, a fallen woman who followed Jesus. Owned and operated by Catholic nuns, girls as young as ten who were orphans, unwed mothers, prostitutes, and the physically and mentally disabled were sent to the laundries by their families, their priests and the police, to labor day and night in silence, without pay, in brutal conditions. The idea was that, by scrubbing dirty laundry the girls and women would symbolically wash the filth from their souls.
The show was simply and clearly directed by Julie Kline. In her program note she states: "Our intention, rather than to blame, is to ask again the age-old question of what could cause people whose motivations are to do good to inflict such physical and emotional abuse on those they aim to “save.”
Layton points out a patriarchal church’s determination to control women’s sexuality through the dramatic, concise enactments between the girls and a priest. She also portrays more than a dozen characters, sometimes as many as three in the same scene. We see the nuns and priests who administered the facilities, and even some of the neighborhood children who grew up nearby. She has an excellent sense of timing and a gift for physically clarifying the many different characters. I was deeply moved – sometimes enraged – by this brutally honest play.
Sound designer Janie Bullard provided subtle and supportive underscoring of effects that were often lost to the low sound levels required by the venue and the fans that noisily tried and failed to keep the theater cool. I was sitting in the third row and I often found it difficult to follow the scenes over the fan noise.
As lighting designer, Cat Tate Starmer, did a masterful job of wringing every variety of looks out of a limited repertoire of equipment. The play is a constant series of short scenes set in different locations and Ms. Starmer delivered lighting with a tremendous variety so that we always knew when we were going somewhere else.